Thursday, December 31, 2015

'Fear Not': the Christmas gospel for America

Drew Christiansen Ra'fat Aldajani
National Catholic Reporter
December 30, 2015

"Fear not!" is a message that runs through the Christmas story. When Gabriel announces the good news to Mary, the angel immediately calms her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God." Similarly Matthew tells us, when Joseph was ready to give Mary a quiet divorce, "the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.'"

When the shepherds were frightened by the angel, the divine messenger instructs them "Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people." Finally, in his great hymn of praise called the Benedictus, Zachary describes God's promise to Abraham, the father of Jews, Christians and Muslims, that God will free us from fear.

The irony this Christmas is that much of the United States, including "Christian America," is suffering a paroxysm of fear over the threat presented by the Islamic State group and by extension fear of Muslims, who also happen to be the Islamic State group's most numerous victims. Much of this paranoia is whipped up by the Republican primary campaign, where the candidates vie with one another to show their enmity for the Islamic State group and stoke the fear of Muslims.

The candidates' fear-mongering damages the United States, nationally and internationally. Their resort to Islamophobia as a partisan political tactic also degrades our electoral process and harms our civic peace -- of which religious freedom is an integral part.

Following the shootings in San Bernardino, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote, "We must not respond in fear. We are called to be heralds of hope and prophetic voices against senseless violence, a violence which can never be justified by invoking the name of God."

Against the background of demands that Muslim refugees be excluded from the U.S., he added, "We should employ immigration laws that are humane and keep us safe, but should never target specific classes of persons based on religion."

Do those who are spreading this fear, as they seek public office, believe what they are saying? Don't they realize the harmful ramifications of their words? Or, God forbid, do they not really believe what they are saying and are stoking fear for cynical political reasons in order to advance their prospective political careers?

This fear-mongering has now begun to filter down into the general population, not only among those who are intolerant by nature but also to religious and educational institutions that are a vital part of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious fabric of America.

Two recent examples of Islamophobia have grabbed the headlines, one at a prominent Evangelical college, known for its Christian scholarship, the other from a self-consciously fundamentalist university.

At the evangelical Wheaton College, located in the suburbs of Chicago, a Christian professor, Larycia Hawkins was suspended by the university for posting on her Facebook page a quote by Pope Francis that Islam and Christianity worship the same God. The suspension was justified by the university as resulting "from theological statements that seemed inconsistent with Wheaton College's doctrinal convictions." In other words, Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God.

It is disappointing that Wheaton, an institution respected for its efforts to bring gospel Christianity to America with intellectual integrity, took such a xenophobic attitude toward Islam -- and incidentally to Pope Francis whom Hawkins was quoting.

Wheaton is entitled to its doctrinal convictions, but the school could have taken action short of suspension such as issuing a public statement explaining why Hawkins' Facebook post about Pope Francis conflicts with Wheaton's statement of faith.

Hawkins didn't claim that Islam and Christianity are the same religion nor did she say Muslims believe in the divinity of Christ (Muslims don't, but do believe Christ is the only Messiah, returns to slay the Anti-Christ, is a prophet of God and the product of a virgin birth). She simply said that they worship the same God.

Many Christian theologians across denominations hold that the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam worship the same God. Orthodox Christianity, though it confesses God is Trinity, still holds God is one. (Trinity and its synonym triune mean three-in-one.)

As pointed out by NPR's Tom Gjelten, "Most mainstream Muslims would generally agree they worship the same God that Christians -- or Jews -- worship." Gjelten cites Zeki Saritoprak, professor of Islamic studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, who reminds us how the Quran includes the Biblical story of Jacob who asked his sons whom they would worship after he died. His sons replied, "We shall serve thy God and the God of thy fathers, Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac, one God only, and to Him do we submit."

The Quran holds Jesus in esteem and devotes an entire chapter to Mary, but they do not hold that he is divine. Many evangelicals cite Muslim and Jewish denial of the Trinity to claim that they do not worship the same God.

But this view is not held uniformly among Christians. Notably, in 1965, in its Declaration on Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, the Second Vatican Council publicly stated that Muslims "together with us adore the one, merciful God."

The second example of Islamophobia comes courtesy of the president of another evangelical university, Liberty University's Jerry Falwell Jr. In his speech, Falwell encouraged Liberty's students to carry guns with them in order to discourage terrorists from attempting an attack such as occurred Dec. 2 in San Bernardino. Falwell said if some of the San Bernardino victims had "what I've got in my back pocket right now" they wouldn't have died.

For good measure, Falwell added, "If more good people had concealed carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in."

Somewhat to his credit, Falwell later clarified that he was referring to the San Bernardino shooters when he spoke about "those Muslims," adding "there are many good Muslims, many good, moderate Muslims."

This is certainly not the Christianity of compassion, love for one's neighbor and even love for one's enemy that Christ preached. Just because each of the two faiths has its own understanding of God does not mean that commonality between them cannot be found in many areas. Even though there will always be Muslims and Christians who feel that their faith has a monopoly on God, we are all better served when our interreligious encounter are marked by humility, respect and generosity.

Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, articulated it well in a Washington Post column. Moore admitted that as an evangelical he disagrees strongly with Islam, yet he admonished Christians to not only protect their own religious freedoms but that of others too. "It is not in spite of our gospel conviction," Moore said, "but precisely because of it, that we should stand for religious liberty for everyone."

Kurtz, in his Dec. 14 statement, commented, "Watching innocent lives taken and wondering whether the violence will reach our own families rightly stirs our deepest protective emotions. We must resist the hatred and suspicion that leads to policies of discrimination. Instead, we must channel our emotions of concern and protection, born in love, into a vibrant witness to the dignity of every person."

Christmas ought to be a time when "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). God's message to Christian America -- Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical -- is Christmas is the same as it was to the characters in the Nativity story: "Do not fear." The new year ought to be the time when we commit ourselves to opposing xenophobia, welcoming refugees from abroad and defending religious liberty for our fellow Muslim Americans at home.

[Drew Christiansen, S.J., is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Ra'fat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]​

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Appeals court vacates Philadelphia monsignor's conviction, orders new trial

Ralph Cipriano
National Catholic Reporter
December 22, 2015

A Pennsylvania appeals court has vacated the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn, and ordered a new trial for the Philadelphia archdiocese’s former secretary for clergy.

Lynn, convicted in 2012 on a single count of endangering the welfare of a child, had been serving a three-to-six year prison sentence. He was the first Catholic administrator in the country to be sent to jail for failing to adequately supervise a sexually abusive priest.

In a 43-page decision, a panel of three state Superior Court judges ruled that the trial court -- Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina -- "abused its discretion" by allowing 21 supplemental cases of sex abuse to be admitted as evidence against Lynn.

The 21 cases dated back to 1948, three years before Lynn was born, and took up at least 25 days of the 32-day trial. In his appeal, Lynn's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, argued that the prosecution "introduced these files to put on trial the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia, hoping to convict [Lynn] by proxy for the sins of the entire church."

The Superior Court judges agreed, ruling that the "probative value" of the supplemental cases "did not outweigh its potential for unfair prejudice, and that this potential prejudice was not overcome by the trial court's cautionary instructions."

In their decision, the Superior Court judges blasted Sarmina.

"None of the evidence concerned the actual victim in this case, and none of it directly concerned [Lynn's] prior dealings with either [former priest Edward V.] Avery or [Father James J.] Brennan," the two co-defendants on trial with Lynn, the Superior Court judges wrote. "In this regard, the trial court has apparently mistaken quantity for quality in construing the probative value of this evidence en masse." The Superior Court judges found that the "probative value of significant quantities of this evidence was trivial or minimal."

On June 22, 2012, a jury in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court found Lynn guilty of a single charge of endangering the welfare of a child. Lynn had served 18 months of his sentence on Dec. 26, 2013 when a panel of three state Superior Court judges -- John Bender, Christine Donohue and John Musmanno -- reversed the monsignor's conviction and ordered him "released forthwith."

But Sarmina didn't agree, and instead imposed conditions on the defendant that amounted to house arrest.

Lynn had spent 16 months under house arrest until April 27, when the state Supreme Court reversed the reversal by the Superior Court. Three days later, Sarmina granted a motion by the district attorney's office to revoke bail and send Lynn back to jail to serve out the remainder of his sentence.

The legal battle over the monsignor's case dwelled on the wording of the state's original child endangerment law. The law, which took effect in 1972, says, "A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support."

The Superior Court decided that under the statute, Lynn wasn't a supervisor. The state Supreme Court disagreed, saying that under the law, Lynn was a supervisor.

Since his return to jail, Lynn has served another eight months of his sentence, meaning he has been in prison a total of 24 months, as well as 16 months under house arrest.

In today's decision, the same panel of Superior Court judges -- Bender, Donohoe and Musmanno -- again reversed Lynn's conviction, this time because of the supplemental evidence.

The district attorney of Philadelphia is widely expected to appeal the Superior Court's decision to the state Supreme Court. If that happens, the Supreme Court would have another chance to review the Lynn case.

“I think it’s the right decision, I’m pleased with it,” Bergstrom said. The monsignor’s lawyer said that supplemental evidence is allowed into a case to show “other acts of the defendant.”

But the supplemental cases allowed in the Lynn case concerned “other acts of others,” Bergstrom said. The effect on the jury was “completely awful and devastating.”

“We’ll see what happens next,” Bergstrom said. As of today, Bergstrom had been unable to reach his client. The lawyer said he had no idea when Lynn, currently the prison librarian at the State Correctional Institute in Waymart, Pa., would be released.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Oakland docese to open safe house for trafficked girls

Monica Clark
National Catholic Reporter
December 15, 2015

Bishop Michael Barber, S.J., announced Dec. 8 that the Oakland Diocese's observance of the Year of Mercy will include outreach to girls who are victims of sex trafficking. The first initiative, he said, is to open a safe house where sexually exploited girls, ages 11-17, can heal and "rediscover their humanity."

Catholic Charities of the East Bay is partnering with the Alameda County District Attorney to establish and operate the house, which will be funded through grants and private donations. It will be located outside of Oakland, possibly in a vacant convent. The annual operating cost will be about $750,000, according to Catholic Charities' officials.

The district attorney's office reported that in the past five years 542 youth in the county have been identified as at risk or already involved in commercial sexual exploitation. Ninety-eight percent of them are girls. Of these, 61 percent are African-American.

During a press conference announcing the initiative, County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said that previously girls in the sex trade were arrested and placed in juvenile detention. But, she emphasized, they are victims, not criminals. They need "a home where they can heal from trauma and thrive."

Many are runaways whose families were extremely abusive. Returning them to these situations is not a positive option. "They feel safer being trafficked than being in their homes," she said. On any given night, up to 100 young women are being exploited on local streets, she added.

At the safe house, the girls will receive mental health counseling, medical and dental care, help with returning to school, and instruction in basic life and social skills, said Chuck Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities of the East Bay. "We will hold hope for these girls until they can hold it for themselves."

O'Malley said it is essential to envelope these girls with genuine love and caring. Many of them have never been told, I love you, by their families, she said. "These children don't just need a bed, then need a home."

Barber praised O'Malley for her efforts, which include training airport and transit workers on how to spot potential trafficking. Her office is placing posters in strategic areas in Oakland to let victims of sex trafficking know where help is available. "Without her resolve, this might remain in the shadows," said Barber.

Catholic Charities of the East Bay has a history of reaching out to persons traumatized by violence. They will bring that expertise to the safe house, with additional training from Georgia-based Wellspring Living which operates several homes for victims of trafficking. Fernandez hopes his agency will eventually be able to open transitional housing for girls ready to move from the safe house to more independent living. The first safe house is expected to accommodate up to 20 girls.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Vatican council of cardinals to focus next on decentralization

Joshua J McElwee
National Catholic Reporter
December 12, 2015

The Catholic cardinals advising Pope Francis on reforming the church’s central bureaucracy have decided to focus their next meeting in February 2016 on the possible decentralization of the global church’s structures, the Vatican has announced.

The Council of Cardinals will focus their reflections on an October speech by Francis that called for a “healthy decentralization” of the church, the Vatican said Saturday.

The Cardinals’ council is a group of nine prelates advising the pope on reforming the Vatican bureaucracy, known as the Roman Curia. They had been meeting in Rome for the twelfth time Thursday-Saturday.

Their advice to the pope is known to have led to the institution of a new papal commission to protect minors, the new Secretariat for the Economy that centralizes the Vatican’s financial structures, and the planned new Vatican office for “Laity, Family and Life” that is to combine several current offices.

Saturday’s release refers to a speech the pontiff made Oct. 17 during the Synod of Bishops, the three-week global meeting of Catholic prelates in Rome that discussed issues of family life. In that speech, Francis called for a more “synodal” church that listens to people at every level.

Quoting from his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, the pope said then he could not substitute the ability of bishops around the world to discern the problems facing Catholics in their regions and was aware “of the need to proceed with a healthy ‘decentralization.’”

“In its reflections, the Council has noted the importance of the Holy Father’s Oct. 17 discourse, in occasion of the Commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Institution of the Synod of Bishops,” Saturday’s statement said.

“In that discourse, the Pope had extensively developed the theme of ‘synodality’ but also recalled ‘the need to proceed with a healthy ‘decentralization,’” it continued.

“The Council has recalled the need to deepen the significance of that discourse and its importance also for the work of the reform of the Curia, so much so as to decide to dedicate a specific session to it during their upcoming meeting in February 2016,” it said.

The Vatican did not give much more information about the Council’s meeting this week, saying only that the prelates had continued to speak about the new “Laity, Family and Life” office and also about a proposal to create another new Vatican office for “Justice, Peace and Migration.”

That latter office has been the subject of speculation for months and would likely combine the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace with other offices to create one larger, centralized Vatican dicastery.

The Vatican said the Council had also heard from Cardinal George Pell, the head of the Secretariat for the Economy and a member of the Council, about a new working group at the Vatican reflecting on the future of the economic structures of the Holy See and the Vatican city-state.

The Vatican said Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a member of the Council and the head of the new commission to protect minors, spoke of his commission’s ongoing work, especially in creating programs of education and formation to assist global episcopal conferences.

The Council’s meetings for 2016 were also announced as: Feb. 8-9, April 11-13, June 6-8, Sept. 12-14, and Dec. 12-14.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

'Irregularities" in doctrine office dealt with, Vatican says

Associated Press
December 10, 2015

The Vatican confirmed that some “irregularities” were discovered in its doctrine office after a German newspaper reported that investigators found a wad of about $22,000 in euro bills in a desk drawer.

Bild newspaper said the money was discovered during a search of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith office that followed a February request for information about its assets. The Vatican’s new economy secretariat has been trying to gather information about the holdings of various departments.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Wednesday that “some irregularities” were discovered, corrective measures were taken and the congregation is now “vigorously” following the Vatican’s new administrative rules.

Up until recently, cash payments were common in the Vatican for services such as translation work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

North Carolina parishioners clash with pastor, petition for his removal

Peter Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter
December 8, 2015

In the small Catholic world of the bucolic North Carolina mountains, this Advent is dawning with discord.

A total of 143 parishioners from St. John the Evangelist Church in Waynesville, in a parish of roughly 300 families, have petitioned Bishop Peter Jugis of the Charlotte diocese to remove their pastor, Fr. Christopher Riehl, who came to the church just a little over a year ago.

Parishioners who value what they say was the post-Vatican II style of their parish have locked horns with Riehl, who came to Waynesville from the Knoxville, Tenn., diocese in July 2014 intent with what his critics describe as "restorationist" approaches to liturgy and church governance.

In their petition, dated March 9, signees say that Riehl has moved ahead on rectory repairs and other expensive projects over the objection of the parish finance committee; has taken over the parish's Rite of Christian Initiation for Catholic converts with a pastor-centric approach which is at odds with the recommendations of the U.S. bishops; and has "openly defamed the Second Vatican Council" while substituting popular hymns with Gregorian chant. Most of the choir resigned en masse after the former director was relieved of her duties.

In interviews with NCR, parishioners say their pastor has been aloof and removed from the concerns of grieving families at funerals. Attendees at one local civic leader's funeral, which included a large number of non-Catholics, were told in the pastor's homily about church teaching on purgatory and little or nothing about the life of the deceased. They also said their pastor is slow to respond to requests for the sacrament of the sick for the dying. Their complaints fill hundreds of pages of documents they have submitted to NCR and to Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

The parish is divided between a group which continues to attend St. John the Evangelist and supports Riehl, and others who have either left the parish for the town's Episcopal and Methodist congregations or no longer attend Christian worship. Some parishioners now attend Sunday Mass at the office of a local dentist, after being asked by Jugis to cease Sunday worship at the nearby Living Waters Retreat House.

For potential Catholic parish shoppers, there are few alternatives around Waynesville, a tourist town whose population swells in the summer and is located some 30 miles from Asheville in the sparsely-populated and largely Protestant Bible Belt region.

Carol Viau, a local Catholic, considers herself to be part of "St. John's in exile." The retreat center Sunday Mass had attracted as many as 100 former St. John's parishioners. Petitioners have so far received no formal response from the bishop, other than his suggestion that the group meet with Riehl. A first meeting, held Dec. 1, was described by Viau as providing some progress in addressing concerns about the pastor's response to requests for the sacraments.

She is, however, not pleased with the response from the diocese on the larger issues.

"The group feels that the bishop is pro-restoration movement and that's why he's turned a deaf ear," said Viau, a member of St. John's for eight years. The restoration movement, popular among some newly-ordained priests, grew during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. Broadly defined, the movement has called for a leaner, muscular church, more attached to ancient liturgical traditions with a strict interpretation of Catholic doctrines and practices.

The diocese denies it is nurturing a "restorationist" movement and, according to diocesan spokesman David Hains, it is a term used by Riehl's critics to discredit him.

Viau said that St. John's was "a happy and vibrant parish" but is now deeply divided.

Parishioner Mark Zaffrann acknowledged that church attendance is down, but attributed that to what he said was discord sowed by the dissident group. The leadership of that group had "unbridled control of the various ministries" in the parish and resented Riehl's new approach. He said the old finance council in the parish presented Riehl with an overly-optimistic view of the church's finances, which was disputed by a diocesan-sponsored audit requested by the new pastor. As for the rectory repairs, Zaffrann, a local realtor, said the structure was uninhabitable and desperately needed renovations.

Liturgically, the parish has improved, Zaffrann told NCR. "My impression is that the Mass is better," he said. "It's very humble, reverent and solemn. It brings respect to the Eucharist."

However, critics of Riehl, ordained in 2009 for the Knoxville diocese, say he is out of step with the pastoral emphasis of Pope Francis.

The pope, in his Nov. 18 general audience, suggested that newly-ordained priests avoid rigidity. "I'm scared of rigid priests. They bite," joked the pontiff.

In an address to Italian Catholics, also in November, Francis suggested, "it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct or forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally."

A retired priest of the Charlotte diocese, who has celebrated Mass for the petition signers, said that what they have experienced is common in the diocese. The priest, who requested anonymity for fear of publicly confronting Jugis, said that "restorationist" pastors have been placed in parishes throughout Western Carolina as well as the growing city of Charlotte and its nearby suburbs.

"Wherever they go, people leave," said the priest, noting that while in other regions shopping for a new parish is easy, the isolation of Catholic parishes in western North Carolina makes it more difficult for those seeking alternatives.

"They took a stand," he said about the group which considers itself in exile from the parish.

Riehl did not return a phone call from NCR. Jugis, via spokesman Hains, offered a statement which said that liturgical diversity is part of the church's practice, and quoted Francis that "the Church has a face that is not rigid."

Regarding the situation in Waynesville, Jugis said: "Parish priests have valued options for the sacrament and as long as there are options there will be differences."

The bishop declined to comment on the other complaints from the St. John's parish group.

Francis opens Jubilee year with call for church that puts mercy before judgement

Joshua J. McElwee
National Catholic Reporter
December 8, 2015

Pope Francis has launched his yearlong push for a global Catholic church of mercy and forgiveness, starting the Jubilee year focused on the subject by opening the holy door at St. Peter’s Basilica and calling for a church that always puts mercy before judgment.

In a solemn Mass attended by tens of thousands in a chilly St. Peter’s Square and marked by an unusually high security presence, the pontiff also praised the work of the Second Vatican Council and said the newly-opened Jubilee "compels us not to neglect the spirit which emerged" from that event.

"This Extraordinary Holy Year is itself a gift of grace," Francis said during the homily at the Mass. "To enter through the Holy Door means to rediscover the deepness of the mercy of the Father who welcomes all and goes out to meet everyone personally."

"How much wrong we do to God and his grace when we affirm that sins are punished by his judgment before putting first that they are forgiven by his mercy!" the pope exhorted.

"It is truly so," he said. "We have to put mercy before judgment, and in every case God’s judgment will always be in the light of his mercy."

"Let us abandon all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved," said Francis. "Instead, let us live the joy of encounter with the grace that transforms all."

The pontiff was speaking in the Mass opening the Jubilee year of mercy, which will continue from Tuesday through Nov. 20, the day celebrated next year as the feast of Christ the King.

A Jubilee year is a special year called by the Catholic church to receive blessing and pardon from God and remission of sins.

While most Jubilees have been focused on calling pilgrims to Rome to receive such pardon, Francis has widely expanded his Jubilee, asking that dioceses throughout the world open their own holy door at a cathedral or other church to expand the practice globally.

A holy door is a door normally designated in special churches -- like the four papal basilicas in Rome -- to be opened only during Jubilee years as a sign of the possibility of re-entering into God’s grace.

Francis opened the holy door in St. Peter's Basilica towards the end of the Mass Tuesday. Standing in front of the door, located at the northeast corner of the Vatican basilica, the pontiff asked God to grant "a year of grace, a favorable time to love you and our brothers and sisters in the joy of the Gospel."

Calling Jesus "the shining face of your infinite mercy, safe refuge for us sinners, needing of forgiveness and peace" and saying that Christ is the door "through which we come to [God]," the pope pushed through the door open slowly with both hands while walking through.

Retired Pope Benedict XVI, looking a bit frail while grasping a cane to walk, was the second person to follow Francis through the door, and the two pontiffs embraced and spoke briefly both before and after the opening of the threshold.

Both Francis’ homily at the Mass and the ceremony itself also paid tribute to the Second Vatican Council, which officially closed its work on Dec. 8, 1965.

The Council, known colloquially as Vatican II, has been a hot point for conversation in Catholic circles over the past 40 years, with some praising its work to reform certain aspects of the church's teachings and others saying those reforms may have gone too far or have been misinterpreted.

The Eucharistic celebration Tuesday was opened with readings of excerpts from the Council’s four constitutions and its documents on ecumenism and religious liberty. In his homily, Francis said the Council documents "verify the great advance in faith" made at the event.

"In the first place, however, the Council was an encounter," said the pontiff. "A true encounter between the Church and the men and women of our time."

"An encounter marked by the force of the Spirit, who pushed the Church to emerge from the shoals which for many years had kept her closed in herself, to set out once again, with enthusiasm, on her missionary journey," he continued.

"It was the resumption of a journey of going to meet every person where they live: in their cities, in their homes, in their workplaces," he said.

"Wherever there is a person, the Church is called to reach out to them to bring the joy of the Gospel," said Francis. "After these decades, we again take up this missionary push with the same power and enthusiasm."

"The Jubilee challenges us to this openness, and compels us not to neglect the spirit which emerged from Vatican II, that of the Samaritan, as Blessed Paul VI reminded at the conclusion of the Council," he said. "May our passing through the Holy Door today commit us to making our own the mercy of the Good Samaritan."

Francis' opening of the holy door in St. Peter's Tuesday is just one of a number of signs and symbols the pope and the Vatican will undertake in coming days to stress the opening of the Jubilee year and the focus on the boundless nature of God's mercy.

The pontiff already made one special sign during his November visit to the Central African Republic, opening a holy door at the cathedral in the capital of Bangui a full eight days before the official opening of the Jubilee.

That was the first time in the centuries of celebration of Jubilee years that a pontiff opened a holy door in any city other than Rome.

The pope will open the holy door at his cathedral church -- the Basilica of St. John Lateran -- on Sunday, when U.S. Cardinal James Harvey will also open the holy door at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls. The pontiff, in a first for a Jubilee year, has called for similar holy doors to be opened in dioceses across the world that same day.

Francis will open the door of Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major, the fourth papal basilica, on Jan. 1.

In preparation for visitors coming to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee, the Vatican has opened a new office on the main road into St. Peter's Square to welcome pilgrims and to centralize services such as obtaining tickets to walk through the holy door at St. Peter's.

They have also placed dozens of new metal detectors under the iconic colonnades in the Square to streamline security access to the basilica. Hundreds of volunteers will be available each day of the year to assist pilgrims.

Security measures for Tuesday’s Mass were among the most stringent seen at the Vatican since at least 2014’s canonization of Sts. John Paul II and John XXIII, with a bag check at the far east end of the Roman road entering St. Peter’s Square forcing tens of thousands to face long queues to enter the event.

Uniformed military were also patrolling crowds as they lined to enter the Square, uniformed and plainclothes police officers were patrolling streets around the Vatican, and police boats were even sighted on the normally abandoned Tiber River.

Francis has also said he will be making a special sign of mercy one Friday of the month each month during the Jubilee. The first will come Dec. 18, when he is to open a door at a Caritas center in Rome that provides shelter and food for those in need.

The holy year will get a special push Feb. 10, Ash Wednesday next year, when the pontiff will commission some 800 priests from around the world to serve as "Missionaries of Mercy," giving them a special mandate to go among dioceses and forgive even canonical penalties normally reserved to the Holy See.

In a special Angelus prayer following the Mass Tuesday with pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square for the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Francis said the celebration of Mary’s birth becomes a celebration for all through a daily "yes" to let go of selfishness and to make the lives of our brothers and sisters in the world happier.

"Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception has a specific message to communicate to us: It reminds us that in our life all is gift, all is mercy," said the pontiff. "The Holy Virgin … helps us to rediscover always more divine mercy as the distinctive characteristic of the Christian."

"It is the synthesis-word of the Gospel, mercy," he said. "It is the fundamental trait of the face of Christ: that face that we recognize in the diverse aspects of his existence: when he goes out to meet all, when he heals the sick, when he sits at table with sinners, and most of all when, nailed to the cross, he pardons; there we see the face of divine mercy."

The closing of the Mass Tuesday emphasized that while the Jubilee year is oriented towards evincing God's immeasurable mercy towards us, it also is meant as a forceful push to show Catholics around the world to be merciful to one another -- and to everyone else.

"Be merciful as your Father is merciful," a deacon intoned, ending the liturgy.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Pope Francis invokes notorious Borgias amid Vatican scandal over sex and spying

Nick Squires
The Telegraph
December 1, 2015

Pope Francis invoked the memory of the notorious Borgia family as he returned from his African trip to a Vatican that is mired in scandalous allegations of espionage, sex and corruption.

A Spanish priest who is one of five people on trial in a Vatican court, charged with leaking confidential Holy See documents, has claimed that he had a sexual relationship with one of the other defendants – a married public relations executive named Francesca Immacolata Chaouqui.

Monsignor Lucio Vallejo Balda said in a statement that he broke his vows of celibacy and had sexual relations with Mrs Chaouqui on at least one occasion.

They both sat on a commission, set up by Pope Francis, to reform the Holy See’s murky finances.

The trial, which is proving embarrassing for the Vatican, began last week and will resume on Monday.

The Pope was asked about the leaks scandal by Vatican correspondents as he returned from his six-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic aboard the papal plane.

“I just thank God that there’s no Lucrezia Borgia,” he joked, referring to the illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI, a femme fatale of the 15th century who has long been associated with allegations of incest, poisoning and murder.

The Jesuit pontiff admitted that it had been an “error” for him to appoint Mrs Chaouqui and Msgr Vallejo Balda to the finance commission that he set up shortly after his election in 2013.

He suggested that Mrs Chaouqui had been driven to allegedly leak the documents because of her anger at not being retained by the Vatican once the commission’s work was done.

“Some say she was upset about this, but the judges will tell us the truth about the intentions (of the whistleblowers), how they did it,” he said.

The Pope vowed to continue with the reforms he has embarked onto streamline the Holy See’s bank and to clean out corruption and nepotism within the Vatican’s governing body, the Curia.

He said he had not “lost any sleep” over the scandals because they showed that corruption was being rooted out and his reforms were working.

Msgr Vallejo Balda, 54, made the claims about sleeping with the public relations consultant in statement to his lawyers, which was obtained by La Repubblica, an Italy daily paper.

He claimed they had sex in Florence in December last year.

“I’m ashamed of what I did with Francesca,” he wrote in the statement.

He said he believed Ms Chaouqui, 33, was working for the Italian secret services. “She told me that she was working for the intelligence services and that her marriage was just a cover. She sent me photos of Corrado (her husband) with another woman, who she said was his real wife.”

Later their relationship turned acrimonious. “She wrote me a Whatsapp message telling me that I was an a**ehole. She was a bad person, she wrote to me calling me a worm.”

Mrs Chaouqui denied having sex with the priest.

She said she was prepared to sue him and his lawyer for defamation.

“At the trial he better retract everything, otherwise I’ll leave him standing in his underpants.

“I know emirs and billionaires – if I had wanted to betray my husband I certainly wouldn’t have done it with an old priest who doesn’t even like women,” she told La Repubblica.

The pair are accused of passing confidential Vatican documents and computer passwords to Gianluigi Nuzzi and Emiliano Fittipaldi, two Italian journalists who last month published revealing books based on the papers, one called Avarice and the other Merchants in the Temple.

If found guilty, the defendants face up to eight years in prison.

Msgr Vallejo Balda has been held in a cell in the barracks of the Vatican gendarmerie since being arrested in early November.

The trial threatens to overshadow a special Year of Mercy, convened by Pope Francis, which begins next Tuesday.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

US church leadership is in transition

National Catholic Reporter Editorial Board
December 2, 2015

In Florence, Italy, last month, Pope Francis addressed the Italian church and gave a bracing, 50-minute exhortation on how integral change is to a healthy life of the church.

"Before the problems of the church, it is not useful to search for solutions in conservatism or fundamentalism, in the restoration of obsolete conduct and forms that no longer have the capacity of being significant culturally," he told the gathered clerics and laypeople.

At another point, he said, "Christian doctrine is not a closed system incapable of generating questions, doubts, interrogatives -- but is alive, knows being unsettled, enlivened. It has a face that is not rigid, it has a body that moves and grows, it has a soft flesh: It is called Jesus Christ."

It was one more item in a persistent litany of invitations that Francis has offered the entire church -- but most specifically his bishops -- to a freedom that presumes a willingness to wrestle both with the demands of the law and human realities that expose the law as inadequate to many circumstances at hand.

Less than a week later, the U.S. bishops gathered in Baltimore, and it seems the invitation was overlooked by many, perhaps ignored, and even, among some, feared and rejected. During three days of deliberations, the leaders of the American church considered priorities and plans for the future and a political document intended to guide Catholic voters.

What the American church received for the effort was a stale offering of old documents, largely ineffective in their previous iterations and sounding today, in parts, embarrassingly tone-deaf to current realities.

The conference is quite evidently stuck in a long transition between differing papal priorities and styles. Those who are enthusiastic about the transformation Francis is leading realize that institutional change takes time. On many of the most compelling issues, they simply do not yet have the votes to move beyond the rigid formulations of past decades.

It is understandable. The conference is still top-heavy with bishops formed by or conforming to the expectations of Pope John Paul II, whose ecclesiological preferences were largely unchanged during the reign of Pope Benedict XVI.

John Paul favored loyalty of the sort that raises no questions or challenges. The church under John Paul became a highly juridical exercise with strictly drawn lines, a tick list of orthodoxies and "non-negotiables." Under that regime, it was easy to detect who was inside or outside the institution, and that distinction was held as highly important. John Paul had no tolerance for questions that he alone deemed out of bounds.

The rigidity of that neat and tidy church, a high-employment zone for canon lawyers, was its undoing. It cracked under the force of tremors emanating from the corruption of the clergy culture and the devastating sex abuse and money scandals. It cracked because it could not withstand the pressures that derived from everyday existence, where the life of faith is not lived in constant consultation with the law.

The rigidly drawn borders, merciless in their judgment of the unworthy, kept people out. They couldn't, however, hold in those who became disgusted with the corruption or those who became disenchanted with faith by fiat. The model was unable to hold so many young who viewed the church as irrelevant to their lives. Little in the way of invitation was offered to the alienated.

Francis understands that the future of the church rests not in its application of the law, nor in a resort to old forms and practices, as if they hold some magical path to salvation.

He understands that the future of the church is relational, human-to-human, ultimately together forming that "body that moves and grows," that "has soft flesh," and that "is Jesus Christ."

Francis is not a rupture with the past and does not represent "a hermeneutic of discontinuity," a Benedict construction that is repeatedly misused to continue applying old, unyielding disciplines.

Francis represents an overdue correction of deep maladies within the church. He understands the need to dismantle the most destructive elements of the clergy culture that has so scandalized and compromised the church in recent decades. He knows to be suspicious of the overly pious, as he recently put it, and of those who would turn Catholicism into another expression of religious fundamentalism.

Changing the church on a national level will be a slow process, built on both persuasion and attrition of the current leadership. The upside of the moment is that bishops convinced of the direction Francis is leading the church need not wait within their own dioceses.

It is most important that such bishops deal quickly and compassionately with young priests who didn't sign up for the Francis vision and may be resistant. Bishops should also attend closely to seminarians who may be struggling to keep their balance amid the fresh winds blowing in the church.

Finally, they should go out of their way to articulate to their people the idea of semper reformanda, that the church is constantly reforming and that the changes they see under Francis are essential to the long-term health of the Catholic community. Debate and struggle over the important issues are not what scandalizes the Catholic faithful.

Francis' approach should have the ring of familiarity to anyone who wanders through the stories of our sacred texts and is taken with Jesus' risky encounters with the masters of the law of his own time. His answers always tended toward a religious freedom more dependent on relationships than the law.

The bulk of U.S. bishops today were trained to be good border police, and for more than 30 years, they performed that task with great diligence. Francis seems to be saying that perhaps that work of making sure the lines were clear and straight and the corners squared went a bit too far.

It is time now for an equally industrious campaign that demonstrates God's mercy, that emphasizes encounter with others. It is time, perhaps, for gathering in, a task during which the borders may become a bit blurred.