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Pope: U.S., North Korea need diplomatic solution to escalating tensions

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

ABOARD THE PAPAL FLIGHT FROM CAIRO (CNS) -- A diplomatic solution must be found to the escalating tension between North Korea and the United States, Pope Francis told journalists.

"The path (to take) is the path of negotiation, the path of a diplomatic solution," he said when asked about U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to send Navy warships to the region in response to North Korea's continued missile tests and threats to launch nuclear strikes against South Korea, Japan and the United States.

"What do you say to these leaders who hold responsibility for the future of humanity," the pope was asked, during a Q-and-A with journalists on the flight to Rome April 29 after a 27-hour trip to Cairo.

"I will call on them. I'm going to call on them like I have called on the leaders of different places," he said.

There are many facilitators and mediators around the world who are "always ready to help" with negotiations, the pope said.

The situation in North Korea, he added, has been heated for a long time, "but now it seems it has heated up too much, no?"

"I always call (for) resolving problems through the diplomatic path, negotiations" because the future of humanity depends on it, he said.

Pope Francis said his contention that the Third World War already is underway and is being fought "piecemeal" also can be seen in places where there are internal conflicts like in the Middle East, Yemen and parts of Africa.

"Let's stop. Let's look for a diplomatic solution," he said. "And there, I believe that the United Nations has a duty to regain its leadership (role) a bit because it has been watered down."

When if he would want to meet with President Trump when the U.S. leader is in Italy in late May, the pope said, "I have not been informed yet by the (Vatican) secretary of state about a request being made."

But he added, "I receive every head of state who asks for an audience."

A journalist with German media asked the pope about the controversy he sparked April 22 for saying some refugee camps are like concentration camps.

"For us Germans obviously that is a very, very serious term. People say it was a slip of the tongue. What did you want to say?" the reporter asked.

"No, it was not a slip of the tongue," Pope Francis said, adding that there are some refugee camps in the world -- but definitely not in Germany -- that "are real concentration camps."

When centers are built to lock people up, where there is nothing to do and they can't leave, that, he said, "is a lager."

Another reporter asked how people should interpret his speeches to government officials when he calls on them to support peace, harmony and equality for all citizens, and whether it reflected him supporting that government.

The pope said that with all 18 trips he has taken to various countries during his pontificate, he always hears the same concern.

However, when it comes to local politics, "I do not get involved," he said.

"I talk about values," he said, and then it is up to each individual to look and judge whether this particular government or nation or person is "delivering these values."

When asked if he had had a chance to run off to see the pyramids, the pope said, "Well, you know that today at six in this morning two of my assistants went to see" them.

When asked if he wished he had gone with them, too, the pope said, "Ah, yes."

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True faith means loving others to the extreme, pope tells Egypt's Catholics

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

CAIRO (CNS) -- The only kind of fanaticism that is acceptable to God is being fanatical about loving and helping others, Pope Francis said on his final day in Egypt.

"True faith," he told Catholics, "makes us more charitable, more merciful, more honest and more humane. It moves our hearts to love everyone without counting the cost."

The pope celebrated an open-air Mass April 29 in Cairo's Air Defense Stadium, built by the anti-aircraft branch of the Egyptian armed forces. The pope concelebrated with Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria and leaders of the other Catholic rites in Egypt.

After spending the first day of his visit in meetings with Muslim leaders, government officials, diplomats and members of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the pope dedicated the second day of his trip to Egypt's minority Catholic community.

Arriving at the stadium in a blue Fiat, the pope was slowly driven around the stadium's red running track in a small and low golf cart, far from the estimated 15,000 people seated in the stands high above. Yellow balloons and a long chain of blue balloons tied together like a rosary were released into the sky as a military helicopter circled high above the venue.

Helicopter gunships circled the perimeter of the stadium, while military jeeps patrolled Cairo's streets.

Surrounded by security, the pope managed to personally greet only one small group of children who were dressed as pharaohs and other traditional figures. They hugged the pope affectionately as security tightly closed in on the group.

In his homily, the pope used the day's Gospel reading of the two disciples' journey to Emmaus to highlight how easy it is to feel disappointment, despair and defeat when one is trapped by a false notion of who God really is.

The disciples could not believe that the one who could raise others from the dead and heal the sick could "end up on hanging on the cross of shame," the pope said. Believing Jesus was dead, all their dreams died with him on the cross and were buried in the tomb.

"How often do we paralyze ourselves by refusing to transcend our own ideas about God, a god created in the image and likeness of man," he said. "How often do we despair by refusing to believe that God's omnipotence is not one of power and authority, but rather of love, forgiveness and life."

Like the disciples, he said, Christians will never recognize the true face of God until they let their mistaken ideas die on the cross, rise up from the tomb of their limited understanding and shatter their hardened hearts like the "breaking of the bread" in the Eucharist.

"We cannot encounter God without first crucifying our narrow notions of a god who reflects only our own understanding of omnipotence and power," the pope said.

True faith "makes us see the other not as an enemy to be overcome, but a brother or sister to be loved, served and helped," he said, and it leads to dialogue and respect and the courage to defend the rights and dignity of everyone, not just oneself.

"God is pleased only by a faith that is proclaimed by our lives, for the only fanaticism believers can have is that of charity. Any other fanaticism does not come from God and is not pleasing to him," he said.

At the end of the Mass, Patriarch Sedrak thanked the pope for his visit, which, though it was brief, "has overflowed our hearts with joy and our lives with blessing."

The warm welcome Pope Francis received from so many political and religious components of Egyptian society "is a message to the world that confirms Egypt's nature" as a lover of peace that seeks to affirm peace in the Middle East and the world, the patriarch said.

Later in the day, before his departure for Rome, the pope met with about 1,500 priests, seminarians and religious men and women for a prayer service on the sports field of a Coptic Catholic seminary in Cairo.

He thanked the church workers for their witness and for the good they do in the midst of "many challenges and often few consolations."

"Although there are many reasons to be discouraged, amid many prophets of destruction and condemnation, and so many negative and despairing voices, may you be a positive force, salt and light for this society," he told them.

But to be builders of hope, dialogue and harmony, he said, they must not give in to the many temptations that come each day, including the temptation to expect gratitude from those they must serve and lead.

A good shepherd, Pope Francis said, consoles even when he is broken-hearted and is always a father, even when his children are ungrateful.

Don't become like Pharaoh either with a heart hardened by a sense of superiority, lording over others, expecting to be served and not serve, the pope said.

"The more we are rooted in Christ, the more we are alive and fruitful," he said, and the more they will experience "renewed excitement and gratitude in our life with God and in our mission."

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Follow Glatz on Twitter: @CarolGlatz.

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Catholic leaders decry fourth Arkansas execution in eight days

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- After Arkansas executed its fourth death-row inmate in eight days April 27, Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of capital punishment, said "future generations will look back upon the events unfolding in Arkansas tonight with horror. The barbarity is overwhelming."

Sister Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, tweeted that message 30 minutes after Kenneth Williams was pronounced dead.

His lawyers unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay, saying the inmate should not be executed because three health care professionals had determined he was "intellectually disabled." Relatives of a man killed by Williams in a crash during his 1999 escape from prison also pleaded with the governor to call off his execution.

"There is nothing pro-life about the state-sanctioned killing of an intellectually disabled man," was just one of the many messages Sister Prejean tweeted during Williams' final hours. Catholic Mobilizing Network in Washington, an advocacy group seeking to end the death penalty, similarly sent Twitter updates the night of the execution and each of the eight days when other inmates were executed, including two executions April 24. The social media messages urged people to pray for those facing execution, their families, the victim's families and even the prison guards.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced the multiple executions months ago, saying they had to be carried out in quick succession in order to use the state's final batch of midazolam, a sedative used in lethal injections, before the state's supply expired at the end of April. Of the eight men scheduled to be executed, four were granted court-issued stays of execution.

The quick succession of the executions prompted many to oppose them, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In an April 13 statement, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged Hutchinson to reconsider reducing the sentences to life imprisonment.

The bishop said the timing for the executions "was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment," referring to the state's supply of midazolam. "And so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths," he said.

Sister Prejean said opposition to these executions did not go unnoticed. She tweeted April 27 that the protests "put a spotlight" on the governor and the state and "awakened the world to what's happening."

She also urged opponents to keep up the fight, telling them to "move from horror and outrage and sorrow into renewed passion for justice and compassion."

"It is vital that now, more than ever, we recommit ourselves to working tirelessly for life," she added.

In an April 28 statement, Sister Prejean said Williams' execution "did not go according to plan" because media witnesses reported that the inmate "coughed, convulsed, lurched and jerked during the lethal injection process." She said Hutchinson, who described the execution as "flawless," should launch a full investigation into what went wrong.

One of Williams' attorneys, Shawn Nolan, requested a full investigation into the "problematic execution," saying the accounts of it were "horrifying."

"This is very disturbing, but not at all surprising, given the history of the risky sedative midazolam, which has been used in many botched executions," he said in an April 27 statement.

Williams was sentenced to death in 2000 for fatally shooting a former deputy warden during his 1999 escape from prison, where he was serving a life sentence for killing a college cheerleader the previous year.

Media reports on his final words before he was executed included an apology to the victims' families saying his crimes were "senseless, extremely hurtful and inexcusable. I humbly beg your forgiveness and pray you find the peace, healing and closure you all deserve."

"I am not the same person I was. I have been transformed," he added. "Some things can't be undone. I seek forgiveness."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Pope, Coptic patriarch honor martyrs, urge unity for peace

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

CAIRO (CNS) -- Placing flowers, lighting a candle and praying at the site where dozens of Coptic Orthodox Christians were killed by an Islamic State militant last year, Pope Francis and Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II paid homage to those who were killed for their faith.

Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros walked in a short procession to the Church of St. Peter, where 29 people died and 31 were wounded Dec. 11. The faithful chanted a song of martyrs, and some clashed cymbals under the darkened evening sky.

Inside the small church, the leaders of several other Christian communities in Egypt as well as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople sat before the congregation, which included family members of the victims.

A portion of one wall of the complex was splattered with blood, and pictures of those killed -- many with bright smiles to the camera -- were hung above. Some of the church's stone columns were pock-marked from the debris or shrapnel sent flying from the explosion.

Each of the eight Christian leaders seated before the congregation, beginning with Pope Francis, read a verse from the beatitudes in the Gospel of St. Matthew. Pope Francis and Pope Tawadros then each said a few words in prayer, and everyone shared a sign of peace.

Led by Pope Francis, the eight leaders went to the back of the church, where each lit a small candle and placed white flowers beneath the photos of the martyrs. Pope Francis leaned low to touch the blood-stained wall and made the sign of the cross.

Earlier, in a historic and significant move toward greater Christian unity, Pope Tawadros and Pope Francis signed an agreement to end a longtime disagreement between the two churches over the sacrament of baptism.

The Coptic Orthodox Church had required new members joining from most non-Coptic churches -- including those who had previously been baptized as Catholic -- to be baptized again.

The Catholic Church recognizes all Christian baptisms performed with water and in "the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit." Orthodox who enter the Catholic Church are received as full members, but not baptized again.

In the joint declaration, the two leaders "mutually declare that we, with one mind and heart, will seek sincerely not to repeat the baptism that has been administered in either of our churches for any person who wishes to join the other."

The document was signed during a courtesy visit with Pope Tawadros at the Coptic Orthodox Cathedral April 28.

In his speech to Pope Tawadros and other Coptic Orthodox leaders, Pope Francis said, "The innocent blood of defenseless Christians was cruelly shed." He told them it was that innocent blood "that united us."

"Your sufferings are also our sufferings," he said, the first day of a two-day visit to Egypt's capital.

"How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord and yielding to the enticements of evil or merely to the temptation of repaying evil with evil?"

"How many martyrs in this land, from the first centuries of Christianity, have lived their faith heroically to the end, shedding their blood rather than denying the Lord and yielding to the enticements of evil or merely to the temptation of repaying evil with evil," he said.

He encouraged Catholic and Orthodox to work hard to "oppose violence by preaching and sowing goodness, fostering concord and preserving unity, praying that all these sacrifices may open the way to a future of full communion between us and peace for all."

Pope Tawadros, in his speech, said Pope Francis was following in the footsteps of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who came to Egypt nearly 1,000 years ago to meet Sultan al-Kamel and engage in "one of the most important experiences of intercultural dialogue in history -- a dialogue that is renewed today with your visit."

Calling Pope Francis one of the symbols of peace "in a world tormented by conflicts and wars," the Orthodox leader underlined that the world was thirsting for sincere efforts of spreading peace and love, and stopping violence and extremism.

Pope Tawadros said Pope Francis' visit "is a message for the rest of the world," showing Egypt as a model of mutual respect and understanding.

Despite Christianity's deep roots in Egypt, which was evangelized by St. Mark, Christians have lived through some difficult and turbulent periods, he said. But that only made people's desire to love even greater, showing that "love and tolerance are stronger than hatred and revenge and that the light of hope is stronger than the darkness of desperation."

"The criminal minds" behind all the violence and threats hurting Egypt will never be able to break or weaken the hearts of its citizens who are united and showing an example for future generations.

Later in the evening, Pope Francis was scheduled to go to the apostolic nunciature, where he was staying, and greet a group of children who attend a Comboni-run school in Cairo. After dinner, he was expected to greet some 300 young people who came from outside Cairo to see him.

The majority of the 82.5 million Egyptians are Sunni Muslims. Most estimates say 10-15 percent of the Egyptian population are Christians, most of them Coptic Orthodox, but there are Catholics, Protestants and other various Christian communities in the country as well.

 

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Unmask violence posing as holy, pope tells religious leaders in Egypt

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

CAIRO (CNS) -- Calling his visit to Egypt a journey of "unity and fraternity," Pope Francis launched a powerful call to the nation's religious leaders to expose violence masquerading as holy and condemn religiously inspired hatred as an idolatrous caricature of God.

"Peace alone, therefore, is holy, and no act of violence can be perpetrated in the name of God, for it would profane his name," the pope told Muslim and Christian leaders at an international peace conference April 28. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople was in attendance.

Pope Francis also warned of attempts to fight violence with violence, saying "every unilateral action that does not promote constructive and shared processes is, in reality, a gift to the proponents of radicalism and violence."

The pope began a two-day visit to Cairo by speaking at a gathering organized by Egypt's al-Azhar University, Sunni Islam's highest institute of learning.

He told reporters on the papal flight from Rome that the trip was significant for the fact that he was invited by the grand imam of al-Azhar, Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb; Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi; Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; and Coptic Catholic Patriarch Ibrahim Isaac Sedrak of Alexandria.

Having these four leaders invite him for the trip shows it is "a trip of unity and fraternity" that will be "quite, quite intense" over the next two days, he said.

Greeted with a standing ovation and a few scattered shouts of "viva il papa" (long live the pope), the pope later greeted conference participants saying, "Peace be with you" in Arabic.

He gave a 23-minute talk highlighting Egypt's great and "glorious history" as a land of civilization, wisdom and faith in God. Small olive branches symbolizing peace were among the greenery adorning the podium.

Religious leaders have a duty to respect everyone's religious identity and have "the courage to accept differences," he said in the talk that was interrupted by applause several times.

Those who belong to a different culture or religion "should not be seen or treated as enemies, but rather welcomed as fellow-travelers," he said.

Religion needs to take its sacred and essential place in the world as a reminder of the "great questions about the meaning of life" and humanity's ultimate calling. "We are not meant to spend all of our energies on the uncertain and shifting affairs of this world, but to journey toward the absolute," he said.

He emphasized that religion "is not a problem, but a part of the solution" because it helps people lift their hearts toward God "in order to learn how to build the city of man."

Egypt is the land where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which include "Thou shalt not kill," the pope said. God "exhorts us to reject the way of violence as the necessary condition for every earthly covenant."

"Violence is the negation of every authentic religious expression," he said. "As religious leaders, we are called, therefore, to unmask the violence that masquerades as purported sanctity and is based more on the 'absolutizing' of selfishness than on authentic openness to the absolute."

"We have an obligation to denounce violations of human dignity and human rights, to expose attempts to justify every form of hatred in the name of religion and to condemn these attempts as idolatrous caricatures of God." God is holy, the pope said, and "he is the God of peace."

He asked everyone at the al-Azhar conference to say "once more, a firm and clear 'No!' to every form of violence, vengeance and hatred carried out in the name of religion or in the name of God."

Not only are faith and violence, belief and hatred incompatible, he said, faith that is not "born of sincere heart and authentic love toward the merciful God" is nothing more than a social construct "that does not liberate man, but crushes him."

Christians, too, must treat everyone as brother and sister if they are to truly pray to God, the father of all humanity, the pope said.

"It is of little or no use to raise our voices and run about to find weapons for our protection," he said. "What is needed today are peacemakers, not fomenters of conflict; firefighters, not arsonists; preachers of reconciliation and not instigators of destruction."

The pope again appealed for people to address the root causes of terrorism, like poverty and exploitation, and stopping the flow of weapons and money to those who provoke violence.

"Only by bringing into the light of day the murky maneuverings that feed the cancer of war can its real causes be prevented," he said.

Education and a wisdom that is open, curious and humble are key, he said, saying properly formed young people can grow tall like strong trees turning "the polluted air of hatred into the oxygen of fraternity."

He called on all of Egypt to continue its legacy of being a land of civilization and covenant so it can contribute to peace for its own people and the whole Middle East.

The challenge of turning today's "incivility of conflict" into a "civility of encounter" demands that "we, Christians, Muslims and all believers, are called to offer our specific contribution" as brothers and sisters living all under the one and same sun of a merciful God.

The pope and Sheik el-Tayeb embraced after the sheik gave his introductory address, which emphasized that only false notions of religion, including Islam, lead to violence. The grand imam expressed gratitude for the pope's remarks in which he rejected the association of Islam with terror.

The sheik began his speech by requesting the audience stand for a minute's silence to commemorate the victims of terrorism in Egypt and globally, regardless of their religions.

"We should not hold religion accountable for the crimes of any small group of followers," he said. "For example, Islam is not a religion of terrorism" just because a small group of fanatics "ignorantly" misinterpret texts of the Quran to support their hatred.

The security surrounding the pope's arrival seemed typical of many papal trips even though the country was also in the midst of a government-declared three-month state of emergency following the bombing of two Coptic Orthodox churches on Palm Sunday. The attacks, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, left 44 people dead and 70 more injured.

Egypt Prime Minister Sherif Ismail and other Egyptian officials warmly greeted Pope Francis on the airport red carpet after the pope disembarked from the plane.

They walked together, chatting animatedly, to the VIP hall of Cairo International Airport, then the pontiff was whisked off to the presidential palace to meet el-Sissi at the start of his brief 27-hour visit.

Pope Francis repeated his calls for strengthening peace in his speech to hundreds of officials representing government, the diplomatic corps, civil society and culture.

"No civilized society can be built without repudiating every ideology of evil, violence and extremism that presumes to suppress others and to annihilate diversity by manipulating and profaning the sacred name of God," he said.

History does not forgive those who talk about justice and equality, and then practice the opposite, he said.

It is a duty to "unmask the peddlers of illusions about the afterlife" and who rob people of their lives and take away their ability to "choose freely and believe responsibly."

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Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan.


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Cardinal Dolan slams DNC pledge to support only pro-abortion candidates

By

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan described the recent pledge from the Democratic National Committee's chair to support only pro-abortion candidates "disturbing" and "intolerant."

The cardinal, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities, urged members of the Democratic party to "challenge their leadership to recant this intolerant position."

The cardinal's April 26 statement was in reaction to recent comments by DNC chair Tom Perez who said: "Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state."

Perez went on to say in an April 21 statement: "At a time when women's rights are under assault from the White House, the Republican Congress, and in states across the country, we must speak up for this principle as loudly as ever and with one voice."

Perez's statement came after a DNC "unity tour" rally in Nebraska, where another DNC leader and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, appeared April 20 with a former state senator, Heath Mello, the Democratic mayoral candidate in Omaha. The DNC tour was sharply criticized by pro-abortion groups for joining forces with Mello, who sponsored a 2009 state Senate bill requiring that women be informed of their right to request a fetal ultrasound before having an abortion.

"The actions today by the DNC to embrace and support a candidate for office who will strip women -- one of the most critical constituencies for the party -- of our basic rights and freedom is not only disappointing, it is politically stupid," NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in an April 20 statement.

Sanders responded to the criticism by saying different views on abortion within the party were natural. Perez took this a step further saying he fundamentally disagreed with "Mello's personal beliefs about women's reproductive health."

On NBC's "Meet the Press," April 23, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, was asked if a Democratic politician could be pro-life.

"Of course," she said, adding that she has "served many years in Congress with members who have not shared my very positive -- my family would say aggressive -- position on promoting a woman's right to choose."

Dolan, who offered prayers at the Democratic and Republican national conventions in 2012, had strong words for the Democratic party in his April 26 statement saying the party's "platform already endorses abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy, even forcing taxpayers to fund it; and now the DNC says that to be a Democrat -- indeed to be an American -- requires supporting that extreme agenda."

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Church needs missionaries, not 'clericalized' laity, pope says

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Catholic Church needs laypeople with a missionary spirit, which means Catholics do not have to try to force members into a vocation that is the Holy Spirit's to give, Pope Francis said.

The temptation to impose a vocation on laypeople as some kind of validation of their service in the church "worries me," the pope said April 27 during a meeting with members of Catholic Action.

"What has happened many times in dioceses?" the pope asked. "A priest comes and says, 'I have a phenomenal layman who does this, this and that; he is a good organizer. What if we make him a deacon?' Stop! Don't give him a vocation that is up to the Holy Spirit to give him. Do not clericalize!"

Catholic Action's meeting with Pope Francis kicked off a three-day forum designed to reflect on the theme "Catholic Action in mission with all and for all."

Warmly greeted by some 300 participants from around the world, Pope Francis was presented with several meaningful gifts. Two members from Lampedusa, Italy, where thousands of refugees arrive each year, gave the pope an English copy of the Psalms and the New Testament found in one of the fishing boats used by migrants.

After being told that the book was found with a folded page marking Psalm 55, a song of supplication in times of need, the pope reverently took the gift and kissed it.

He was also greeted by a family from Bethlehem. The children, the pope was told, wanted to teach Pope Francis the Sign of the Cross in Arabic to prepare him for his visit to Egypt the following day.

Bending over and attentively listening to the instruction of the twin siblings, Pope Francis placed his hands above their heads and thanked them.

In his speech, the pope told members that a true missionary apostolate involves "going out" to those in need or who are far away from the church.

However, in calling others to conversion, the pope said Christians must avoid the practice of proselytism or coercion, "which goes against the Gospel."

"It makes me really sad to see people who are in ministry -- lay, consecrated, priests, bishops -- who are still playing the proselytism card. No! It is done through attraction. That is the genius phrase of Pope Benedict XVI," he said.

The pope also called on laymen and laywomen to be agents of mercy to those who are far from the church rather than acting like "border control" agents.

"You cannot be more restrictive than the church nor more papist than the pope," he said. "Please, open the doors, don't administer Christian perfection tests because you will only promote a hypocritical phariseeism."

Prayer, formation and sacrifice are also crucial in preparing laypeople to become missionaries, otherwise, "there is no fruit," the pope added.

Groups and movements like Catholic Action, he continued, must "take flesh" and be willing to serve within their dioceses while avoiding the temptation to become self-serving, which would otherwise remove them from their true calling.  

"A Catholic Action that only pretends and does not take flesh isn't Catholic. It is action, but it is not Catholic. To take flesh doesn't mean what I want, it means what the church wants," Pope Francis said.

Instead, he said, members of the international lay organization must continue to make their presence known in all areas of life, from the world of politics and business to prisons, hospitals and factories.

"Do not become an institution of exclusives that doesn't say anything to anyone nor to the church. Everyone has a right to be evangelized," the pope said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Between election rounds, French cardinal deplores 'democracy gone mad'

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Jonathan Luxmoore

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) -- France's Catholic primate has condemned the current presidential campaign as his country's "worst ever" and urged Christians to help prevent democracy from "losing its sense."

"Left and right rivaled each other and had their radical wings, but there was also a center. Now, left and right have stepped back, and the main candidates are divided by other unclear criteria. I have the impression our voters are totally lost," said Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon.

In an interview with Poland's Catholic Information Agency (KAI), published April 26, Cardinal Barbarin said France was witnessing "the twilight of its existing political system" as citizens sought out "leaders closer to the people in their economic and social realities."

"Democracy seems to be losing its sense and being cast adrift by media shabbiness," Cardinal Barbarin added. "This has been our worst-ever election campaign, characterized by the unforgivable accusations, total critiques, violence, chaos and the misleading of voters."

In the first round of French elections April 23, Emmanuel Macron, founder of En Marche!, a center-left political movement, and Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, emerged as the two top vote-getters. They will face off May 7, when voters will choose who will be president for the next five years. Candidates from the mainstream Socialist and Republican parties will not be in the final round.

Cardinal Barbarin said the success of Le Pen, who has vowed to take France out of the European Union and give French nationals priority over foreigners in jobs, welfare, housing and education, reflected a "destabilizing trend" also visible in other parts of Europe and the United States. He spoke of a "form of democratic terrorism," which stripped candidates of their dignity by establishing a right "to know everything, whether proved or unproved" about them.

"It seems we're dealing with a democracy gone mad," the cardinal said. "Although statesmen still exist, they're unable to get through today's campaign mechanisms, where everything is decided by the art of winning. Those who win are just electoral animals, not competent, rational politicians."

Catholics traditionally make up two-thirds of France's 67 million inhabitants, although only a small proportion attends Mass.

In a book-length message last October, "Recovering the sense of politics," the bishops' conference said "weariness, frustration, fear and anger" in the country had fueled "profound hopes and expectations of change," but also cautioned against "a search for facile, emotive options."

Cardinal Barbarin told KAI the Catholic Church should appeal to citizens not to vote "for people with pretty eyes, who can make stars of themselves with media support."

"This is a time of decadence, and decadence means certain forms and structures are nearing their end," he said.

"As Christians, we yearn for social order, peace and harmony -- a state based on principles of welfare and participation, where all can make contributions and citizens are subjects of the political community," he said. "But the problem in today's France is the rising disappointment and anger of those who feel ill-treated, rejected and forgotten."

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Practical Christianity: Pope emphasizes real help for those in need

IMAGE: CNS photo/Robert Duncan

By Keanine Griggs

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis' unique approach to teaching the faithful combines speaking clearly and simply with showing people what steps -- even small steps -- they can take to make a difference, a Vatican official said.

"He is showing us a practical agenda for being a Catholic and being a Christian in the 21st century," said Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, whom Pope Francis chose as one of two undersecretaries of the Migrants and Refugee Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

"We need programs and possibilities of action in order to live our faith," Father Czerny said. The conversion Pope Francis wants people to undergo involves getting them to ask, "What is the next step that I could take to help our church and people to respond" to the needs of people and the demands of the Gospel?

"He's not proposing a program or organization," the Jesuit said, but he is asking "how can you contribute to people being a little less marginalized and a little more integrated?"

Father Czerny knows something about the experience of being a refugee and integrating into a new land. Born in 1946 in the former Czechoslovakia, he immigrated with his family to Canada. He entered the Jesuits in 1963 and in 1979 co-founded the Jesuit Center for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto. He directed the center until 1989 when he moved to El Salvador to help continue the work of six Jesuits murdered at the Central American University there.

From 1992 to 2002, he served as the social justice secretary at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome before moving to Africa as founding director of the African Jesuit AIDS Network. In 2010, he came back to Rome to serve as an official of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. In January, the council became the foundation of the new Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

The statutes for the new office specify that, at least temporarily, Pope Francis will lead the Section for Migrants and Refugees with the assistance of the undersecretaries, Father Czerny and Italian Scalabrinian Father Fabio Baggio.

In an interview with Catholic News Service, Father Czerny said it is always tempting to look at big political and social problems like the refugee crisis and try to find "a formula or pattern that solves everything."

But Pope Francis' personal style and his insistence on the importance of encounters between individuals send a strong message that human problems require human solutions.

"Small steps do add up and they are the ones that touch us and transform us," so that individuals who set out to help a person in need end up realizing they were given an opportunity to grow in their faith, Father Czerny said.

Pope Francis does not hesitate to name the issues and causes that individuals should place on their "moral agenda," he added. The pope's commitment to the poor and to the pressing migration and refugee scenario highlights his pastoral style, which shows us "how God is calling us to live the Gospel," Father Czerny said.

Pope Francis' impact is so great because his approach speaks to the individual, the Jesuit said. The pope's words and actions focus on the "human element," speaking to and interacting with people "personally and individually."

"Human problems don't seem to respond well to huge solutions," he added. Individuals, parishes and dioceses need to look for small steps they can take to promote "a real encounter and real integration" of anyone in need.

Ultimately, those little steps help Christians "to rediscover our faith and to live it with greater joy."

While Pope Francis is innovative in many ways, it is important to note the continuity of between Pope Francis and his predecessors, Father Czerny said. "All you have to do is visit the footnotes, and you'll see that some of his most striking phrases are quotations from Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II."

Father Czerny said he hopes the legacy of Pope Francis will be that he "found a way of helping the church be both worldwide and very local" by using an approach that inspires individuals to live their faith "intensely and practically in a real way in so many different places."

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Catholic chaplain accompanies anguished circus workers on final tour

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tanya Connor, The Catholic Free Press

By Tanya Connor

WORCESTER, Mass. (CNS) -- The congregation, numbering about 50, gathered for their last Easter Mass together on the DCU Center's arena floor.

The chaplain, Father George "Jerry" Hogan, borrowed one of their colorful boxes to use as an altar. The altar cloths and his chasuble sported circus images. Costume designers had sewn pieces of old elephant blankets together to make his stole.

The backdrop suggested the reason for such an unusual liturgical environment: The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus had come to town to offer shows on Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday.

But it isn't all "fun and games" for performers and other circus workers, some of whom attended the Mass before the Easter shows. While "they've always performed during Holy Week," they are now going through the paschal mystery themselves, Father Hogan told The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester.

The Ringling circus was nearing the end of its 145-year run and the workers, including frontline performers, were in a quandary about their future. They learned Jan. 14 that the circus was closing.

Father Hogan, who has been national circus chaplain for 24 years after being appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled the anguish of the workers when they learned of show's fate just hours after he celebrated Mass for them in Orlando, Florida, where they were performing.

His cellphone "went wild" at his winter home in Sarasota, Florida, where he ministers at St. Martha Parish, the national circus church, as shocked circus workers called him with the news they received: "We're closing." The 145th edition of "The Greatest Show on Earth" would be its last.

The priest of the Boston Archdiocese had to ask himself, "How can I help these people?"

Over the years, Father Hogan has dealt with five circus tragedies, three of which included fatalities, he said, but this was different.

"First of all, you've got to deal with your own feeling, because you become numb," he said. Then you have to look past that to what God is calling you to do. It's more than hearing; it's listening, being physically present."

Such tragedies affect not only those who get hurt, and their families and co-workers, but the managers and owners too, he said.

He described Kenneth Feld, chairman and CEO of Feld Entertainment Inc., Ringling's parent company, as very caring when tragedy strikes.

The same is true with the circus closing.

"He's a very good businessman," Father Hogan said. "He didn't want to close. This is tough for him, too."

Reasons cited for the closing included costs, declining attendance and battles with animal rights groups. Employees were to be helped with the transition.

Ringling's Red Unit and Blue Unit each have at least 300 employees, about 100 of whom are performers, Father Hogan said. The circus runs two different shows simultaneously, for two years each, performing in various cities.

Worcester was one of the last stops for the Red Unit, which was to perform its final show in Providence, Rhode Island, May 7. The Blue Unit's final show is May 21 in Uniondale, New York.

"I will be with you all week in Providence," Father Hogan told Red Unit workers at the Easter Mass. "You'll grow. It's not the end of the world. You'll be able to survive this."

In his homily, he told circus employees, "Easter is a time to celebrate Jesus' rising from the dead," and to celebrate with family.

There had just been an Easter egg hunt for the children who travel with their parents, Father Hogan said. When old enough, they often perform, too. Some families have been in one circus or another for generations.

Some performers from abroad are far from loved ones. During the intercessions, Father Hogan offered an intention for "all your family and relatives who you can't be with because you're working." He asked that God would watch over the people in the Red Unit in this time of transition, and also prayed for the Blue Unit.

He likened his listeners to the beloved disciple in the Gospel, who was reflecting on what was important that first Easter. He acknowledged that the circus workers' life is totally changing and they may wonder, "How am I going to move from this show?"

"This is a time to really talk to the Lord in prayer, like you're talking to another person," Father Hogan said. "You also have to listen. ... Be open to that experience." 

A silver lining Father Hogan sees in the dark times people are experiencing is the reception of sacraments in Uniondale several days before the final show. He said a baby is to be baptized, 12 children are to receive their first Communion, five adults are to be confirmed and one is to be received into the church.

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Connor is a staff writer for The Catholic Free Press, newspaper of the Diocese of Worcester.

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Michigan head coach says meeting pope was 'emotional'

IMAGE: NS photo/L'Osservatore Romano

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As someone accustomed to the stress of the gridiron, University of Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh said he was touched by Pope Francis' peaceful presence.

"The way he talks is peaceful, it's calm. It felt like this is what it would be like to meet Jesus Christ. That's what it felt like to me. It was very emotional," the coach told journalists April 26.

Harbaugh and his wife, Sarah, briefly greeted the pope following his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square earlier that day.

"I said, 'Buenos dias, Santo Padre' ('Good morning, Holy Father'), and then my wife came in and told him that she loved him. He held her hand and prayed and asked that we pray for him," Harbaugh recalled.

The coach and his wife presented the pope with a Michigan football helmet along with a pair of size-10 Air Jordan sneakers in the football team's maize and blue colors.

Harbaugh said the pope smiled and graciously accepted the gifts, despite their unusual nature.

"I'm not sure the Holy Father knows a lot about 'futbol americano,' but he doesn't need to. There's a lot of distress, too, when you look into his eyes; there's pain there. There's so much injustice in the world, so much poverty and war and you can tell and feel that he feels that," he said.

Also present at the audience were several of the 150 players and staff visiting Rome as part of their spring practice program April 22-30.

According to the press release by the university's athletic department, the program was Harbaugh's way of giving the team players "a major life experience, traveling to Rome to practice, but also to take part in social projects and offer them a look into a foreign country and culture."

Speaking to journalists after the audience, Harbaugh said the experience was "more emotional than he anticipated," and that meeting the pope gave him the chance "to live in a state of grace."

"I've been trying to figure out what this experience means and what am I supposed to do with it. At least he gave me the marching orders to pray for him so I have that part of it down."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Why be afraid when God is always showing the way, pope says at audience

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians always have hope, no matter how bleak, bad or uncertain the journey, because they know God is always by their side, Pope Francis said.

In fact, "even crossing parts of the world (that are) wounded, where things are not going well, we are among those who, even there, continue to hope," he said at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square April 26.

Just a few days before his visit to Cairo April 28-29, the pope continued his series of talks on the nature of Christian hope, saying it is rooted in knowing God will always be present, even to the end of time.

The Gospel of St. Matthew, he said, begins with the birth of Jesus as Emmanuel -- "God with us" -- and ends with the risen Christ telling his doubtful disciples to go forth and teach all nations, assuring them that "I am with you always, until the end of the age."

The apostle shows how "ours is not an absent God, sequestered in a faraway heaven. Instead he is a God 'impassioned' with mankind," so tenderly in love that he is unable to stay away, the pope said.

Human beings are the ones who are really good at cutting off ties and destroying bridges, not God, he said.

"If our hearts get cold, his remains incandescent," the pope said. "Our God always accompanies us even if, through misfortune, we were to forget about him."

In fact, the decisive moment between skepticism and faith is "the discovery of being loved and accompanied by our Father," the pope said.

Life is a pilgrimage, a journey in which "the seduction of the horizon" is always calling the human "wandering soul," pushing people to go and explore the unknown, he said.

"You do not become mature men and women if you cannot perceive the allure of the horizon -- that boundary between heaven and earth that asks to be reached" by those who are on the move, he said.

Christians never feel alone "because Jesus assures us he not only waits for us at the end of our long journey, but accompanies us every day," even through dark and troubled times, he said.

God will always be concerned and take care of his children, even to the end of all time, he said. "And why does he do this? Quite simply because he loves us."

The pope said the anchor is one of his favorite symbols of hope.

"Our life is anchored in heaven," he said, which means "we move on because we are sure that our life has an anchor in heaven" and the rope "is always there" to grab onto.

So if God has promised "he will never abandon us, if the beginning of every vocation is a 'Follow me,' with which he assures us of always staying before us, why be afraid then?" the pope asked. "With this promise, Christians can walk everywhere," even in the worst, darkest places.

"It's precisely there where darkness has taken over that a light needs to stay lit."

Those who believe only in themselves and their own powers will feel disappointed and defeated, he said, "because the world often proves itself to be resistant to the laws of love" and prefers "the laws of selfishness."

Jesus promising "I am with you always" is what keeps the faithful standing tall with hope, believing that God is good and working to achieve what seems humanly impossible.

"There is no place in the world that can escape the victory of the risen Christ, the victory of love," the pope said.

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In TED talk, pope urges people to make real connections

IMAGE: CNS photo/TED.com

By Keanine Griggs

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While searching for a connection today often means looking for Wi-Fi, Pope Francis said real connections between people are the only hope for the future.

"How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion," he said in a video talk played April 25 for 1,800 people attending TED 2017 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and posted online with subtitles in 20 languages.

"How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us," the pope said in the talk that TED organizers had been advertising as that of a "surprise guest."

Pope Francis spoke to the international conference about combating the current "culture of waste" and "techno-economic systems" that prioritize products, money and things over people.

"Good intentions and conventional formulas, so often used to appease our conscience, are not enough," he said. "Let us help each other, all together, to remember that the other is not a statistic or a number. The other has a face."

Many people in the world move along paths "riddled with suffering" with no one to care for them, the pope said. Far too many people who consider themselves "respectable" simply pass by, leaving thousands on "the side of the road."

"The more powerful you are, the more your actions will have an impact on people," he said, the greater the responsibility one has to act and to do so with humility. "If you don't, your power will ruin you, and you will ruin the other."

"There is a saying in Argentina," he told his audience: "'Power is like drinking gin on an empty stomach.' You feel dizzy, you get drunk, you lose your balance, and you will end up hurting yourself and those around you, if you don't connect your power with humility and tenderness."

"The future of humankind isn't exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies," he said, even though they all have power and responsibility. "The future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a 'you' and themselves as part of an 'us.'"

Pope Francis said that when he visits someone who is sick or in prison or has been forced to flee war, he always asks himself, "Why them and not me?"

Telling the tech-savvy crowd that he wanted to talk about "revolution," the pope asked people to join a very connected and interconnected "revolution of tenderness."

Tenderness, he said, is "love that comes close and becomes real," something that begins in the heart but translates into listening and action, comforting those in pain and caring for others and for "our sick and polluted earth."

"Tenderness is the path of choice for the strongest, most courageous men and women," he insisted. "Tenderness is not weakness; it is fortitude. It is the path of solidarity, the path of humility."

Pope Francis also urged the crowd to hold on to hope, a feeling that does not mean acting "optimistically naive" or ignoring the tragedies facing humanity. Instead, he said, hope is the "virtue of a heart that doesn't lock itself into darkness."

"A single individual is enough for hope to exist." he added. "And that individual can be you. And then there will be another 'you,' and another 'you, and it turns into an 'us.'"

TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a media organization that posts talks online for free distribution, under the slogan "ideas worth spreading." TED was founded in February 1984 as a conference, which has been held annually since 1990.

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Editors: The pope's TED talk is online at https://www.ted.com/talks/pope_francis_why_the_only_future_worth_building_includes_everyone

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Nuncio tells seminarians that ministry extends beyond 'office hours'

By Tim Puet

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CNS) -- A priest's "office hours" are unlimited and the priesthood is not solely focused on administrative work, the apostolic nuncio to the United States told students at the nation's only Vatican-affiliated seminary.

"It's important to say this to young seminarians: Don't prepare yourselves to be administrative people, to say 'I work from 8 to 6 and after that, it's finished and I take my rest.' No, you are full time," Archbishop Christophe Pierre said during a question-and-answer session April 23 at the Pontifical College Josephinum.

"Your enthusiasm is so important," he continued. "This country needs the church announcing the beauty of the presence of God in Jesus Christ, the power of his resurrection, and the power of transformation found in the Gospel, in which whenever a person met Jesus, he became different."

The nuncio's remarks came after he delivered the college's annual lecture honoring the late Cardinal Pio Laghi, who served from 1980 to 1990 as the Vatican's apostolic delegate to the United States and, after the title was changed, as nuncio, the equivalent of an ambassador.

As nuncio, Archbishop Pierre also is chancellor of the college, the only seminary outside of Italy with pontifical status, an honor Pope Leo XIII granted to the institution in 1882.

The archbishop frequently referred in his talk on "The Priests We Need Today" to a Vatican document on priestly formation, "Ratio Fundamentalis Institutionis Sacerdotalis," ("The Gift of the Priestly Vocation"), which the Congregation for Clergy revised Dec. 8.

The document echoes a phrase made familiar by Pope Francis: "Seminaries should form missionary disciples who are 'in love' with the master, shepherds 'with the smell of the sheep,' who live in their midst to bring the mercy of God to them. Hence, every priest should always feel that he is a disciple on a journey, constantly needing an integrated formation, understood as a continuous configuration to Christ."

The archbishop referred to Pope Francis' description of priests in formation as "uncut diamonds, to be formed both patiently and carefully, respecting the conscience of the individual, so that they may shine among the people of God."

"Formation for the priesthood is best understood within the concept of the journey of discipleship," Archbishop Pierre said.

"Christ himself calls each person by name," first through baptism, followed by the other sacraments of initiation, the archbishop said. "The journey begins with his family and parish. It is there ... that his vocation is nurtured, culminating in entrance into the seminary. The gift of the vocation comes from God to the church and to the world. A vocation should never be conceived as something private, to be followed in an individualistic or self-referential manner."

The model of formation proposed in the document "prepares the seminarian and priest to make a gift of himself to the church, to go out of himself, to not be self-referential, but to look to the essential needs of the flock," Archbishop Pierre said.

He said six characteristics are particularly needed by the 21st-century priest: missionary spirit, humility, communion and unity, prayerfulness, discernment, and closeness to the flock.

The nuncio returned to the document's phrase describing priests as missionary disciples, saying such a person is "one who follows the Lord, but who also goes out with joy," who, in the words of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation "Evangelii Gaudium" ("The Joy of the Gospel") "obey(s) his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel."

"This call to be a disciple and this raising up to be a priest is a gift," the archbishop added. "The church needs priests today who are willing to receive this gift as men of communion." He also quoted from a talk earlier this month in which the pope told seminarians at the Pontifical Spanish College, "It is an ongoing challenge to overcome individualism, to live diversity as a gift, striving for unity of the presbyterate, which is a sign of the presence of God in the life of a community."

Archbishop Pierre also was at the Josephinum for the rededication April 24 of the college's chapel of St. Turibius of Mogrovejo, archbishop of Lima, Peru, from 1580 to 1606, who is patron of the Latin American episcopate and founder of the first seminary in the Americas.

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Puet is a reporter at the Catholic Times, newspaper of the Diocese of Columbus.

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Pope to Egyptians: Let papal visit be sign of friendship, peace

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mohamed Abd El Ghany, Reuters

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Praying that God would protect Egypt from all evil, Pope Francis told the nation's people that a world torn apart by indiscriminate violence needs courageous builders of peace, dialogue and justice.

"I hope that this visit will be an embrace of consolation and of encouragement to all Christians in the Middle East; a message of friendship and esteem to all inhabitants of Egypt and the region; a message of fraternity and reconciliation to all children of Abraham, particularly in the Islamic world," the pope said in a video message broadcast April 25, ahead of his April 28-29 trip to Cairo.

"I hope that it may also offer a valid contribution to interreligious dialogue with the Islamic world and to ecumenical dialogue with the venerated and beloved Coptic Orthodox Church," he said.

The pope thanked all those who invited him to Egypt, those who were working to make the trip possible and those "who make space for me in your hearts."

He said he was "truly happy to come as a friend, as a messenger of peace and as a pilgrim to the country that gave, more than 2,000 years ago, refuge and hospitality to the Holy Family fleeing from the threats of King Herod."

"Our world, torn by blind violence, which has also afflicted the heart of your dear land, needs peace, love and mercy; it needs workers for peace, free and liberating people, courageous people able to learn from the past to build a future without closing themselves up in prejudices; it needs builders of bridges of peace, dialogue, brotherhood, justice, and humanity," he said.

Honored to visit the land visited by the Holy Family, the pope asked everyone for their prayers as he assured every one of his.

"Dear Egyptian brothers and sisters, young and elderly, women and men, Muslims and Christians, rich and poor ... I embrace you warmly and ask God almighty to bless you and protect your country from every evil."

He said it was "with a joyful and grateful heart" that he was heading to Egypt -- the "cradle of civilization, gift of the Nile, land of sun and hospitality, where patriarchs and prophets lived" and where God -- benevolent, merciful, and the one and almighty -- made his voice heard.

The day the video was released, April 25, was also the feast day of St. Mark, who evangelized the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, Egypt, before being martyred there.

Pope Francis dedicated his morning Mass to "my brother Tawadros II, patriarch of Alexandria" of the Coptic Orthodox church, asking that God abundantly "bless our two churches."

In Egypt, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said Egypt would welcome the pope and "looks forward to this significant visit to strengthen peace, tolerance and interfaith dialogue as well as to reject the abhorrent acts of terrorism and extremism."

Christians in Egypt, Syria and Iraq struggle with mounting pressures from extremists challenging their religious identity and the right to practice their faith and continue to exist in their ancestral homelands.

Pope Francis has urged an end to what he called a "genocide" against Christians in the Middle East, but he also has said it was wrong to equate Islam with violence.

Christians are among the oldest religious communities in the Middle East, but their numbers are dwindling in the face of conflict and persecution. Egypt's Christian community makes up about 10 percent of the country's 92 million people.

A high point in the pope's schedule is an international peace conference at Cairo's al-Azhar University, the world's highest authority on Sunni Islam, hosted by Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of the educational institution.

Pope Tawadros and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of the Eastern Orthodox churches, are also expected to participate.

The pope will also meet separately with el-Sissi and other officials. Observers will be watching whether the pope will take on thorny issues with his hosts, such as the detention of thousands of Egyptians, without due process, simply held on suspicion of opposing el-Sissi.

Others will watch to see if Pope Francis prods the Sunni Muslim religious establishment to take a more forceful stand on religious extremism perpetrated in the name of God.

Many hope the al-Azhar meeting will sound a moral wake-up call to leaders worldwide to combat religious intolerance while seeking greater cooperation to fight growing threats by Islamic State and other extremist groups.

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Contributing to this story was Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan.


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Spokesman: Tight security is 'new normal' as pope heads to Egypt

IMAGE: CNS photo/EPA

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Despite the ongoing risk of terrorism, Pope Francis planned to travel to Egypt as a sign of being close to the people there, said Greg Burke, Vatican spokesman.

Heightened security is part of the "new normal" in many countries, but even in the wake of the Palm Sunday attacks in Egypt, it is the pope's desire "to go ahead, to also be a sign of his closeness" to those affected by violence and all the people of Egypt, Burke told journalists April 24.

At a Vatican briefing outlining some details of the pope's trip to Cairo April 28-29, a reporter asked if there were any worries or concerns about the pope's security.

Burke, speaking in Italian, said he wouldn't use the word "worries" or concerns, but would say that "we live in a world where it is now something that is part of life." He added, "However, we move ahead with serenity."

The pope has requested that a "normal car" -- not an armored vehicle -- be used when he is driven from one venue to another, Burke said. It will not be an open-topped vehicle, he added.

The pope will use a "golf cart," however, rather than the open-air popemobile when he makes the rounds through the crowds at the air defense stadium, where Mass will be celebrated April 29.

He also will use the golf cart for circulating among the more than 1,000 seminarians, religious and clergy expected to attend an outdoor prayer service at the Coptic Catholic Church's St. Leo's Patriarchal Seminary in the Cairo suburb of Maadi April 29.

Burke said that after Pope Francis' private meeting with Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, at the patriarch's residence April 28, the two leaders will go together to the nearby church of Sts. Peter and Paul, which had been bombed during a Sunday Mass in December 2016, killing 24 people and injuring at least 45 others.

They will pray "for all the victims from these past years and months, pray for Christians killed," Burke said.

The two will leave flowers outside the church, light a candle and then have a moment of prayer for the victims from the December attack, the Vatican spokesman said.

Soon afterward, the pope will go to the apostolic nunciature, where he will be staying, and will greet a group of children who attend a Comboni-run school in Cairo and later will greet more than 300 young people who made a pilgrimage to Cairo to see the pope, he added.

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New food truck to help stem senior hunger in Diocese of Oakland

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carrie McClish, Catholic Voice

By Carrie McClish

OAKLAND, Calif. (CNS) -- A new shiny truck is bringing food to senior citizens in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood and nearby communities.

A year in the making, the Mercy Brown Bag Program has expanded, with the truck visiting several locales and offering assistance to seniors faced with the high cost of rent and medication.

Krista Lucchesi, director of the program that is part of the services of the Mercy Retirement and Care Center, couldn't stop smiling as she looked at the vehicle parked behind the residential care facility.

Having the truck "now is kind of amazing for all of us," she told The Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Oakland Diocese.

Staff and volunteers cheered the truck as it arrived April 2 after a cross-country trip from St. Louis, where it was built. Nicole St. Lawrence, Mercy Brown Bag's assistant director, brought the truck west on a mission to help stem the tide of senior hunger in Alameda County.

Most recipients enrolled in the Mercy Brown Bag Program have an average yearly income of less than $12,000 in a county where the annual median income is $82,000. Average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is about $1,663 a month, Lucchesi said. In such a costly environment, many seniors must make difficult choices about buying food, medication or shelter in order to survive.

"Healthy food is usually the first thing they will give up," Lucchesi said.

That's where the Mercy Brown Bag Program comes in. The program delivers food to 5,000 seniors at 17 sites and through 45 social service providers. Most of the food that the program distributes comes from the Alameda County Community Food Bank.

Each registered person can take home up to 20 pounds of groceries. Much of the food from a variety of food groups can be considered senior-appropriate: low in sodium and easy to chew.

Contacts at the distribution sites indicate which foods are more desired or more popular.

"Some sites say to bring rice every single time and say, 'we are always going to want rice' or 'we love sweet potatoes,'" Lucchesi said. "Whenever we can find them we try to make sure we have certain foods available for that site."

Fresh produce makes up the majority of the food delivered. The new truck is equipped with a system that will lower baskets of produce to street level, making food selection easier. The truck has a refrigerated area, allowing for the transport of milk and other products that must be chilled.

The food truck, which cost about $200,000, was paid for with donations from the Thomas J. Long Foundation and the Carl Gellert and Celia Berta Gellert Foundation.

The truck is allowing the program to reach up to 3,000 more seniors in need, Lucchesi said. "We are currently building our route to see which areas are not as well served," she said.

The truck also will help address new challenges facing seniors.

"We kept getting calls from low-income seniors who are homebound and with little or no social support," Lucchesi said. "We used to be able to ask them, 'Do you have a child or a friend or a neighbor who can come and get your bags for you?' People had some social connections. But now the isolation is so much deeper and we are hearing more and more from people who say they have no one who can come out to pick up their bag, which makes us sad. So we have been trying to figure out how to get closer to those folks."

The truck may also help address public transportation concerns.

"We have been getting calls where people are saying, 'I don't have any money to get on public transportation to get to one of your sites.' They are really, really living on the edge. This (truck) is a way to get food to them so that they don't have to go on public transportation," Lucchesi said.

A formal dedication of the truck took place April 19 and deliveries were to begin as soon as drivers were hired and trained.

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McClish is a staff writer for The Catholic Voice, newspaper of the Diocese of Oakland.

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Mercy opens the door to understanding the mystery of God, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Mercy is a true form of knowledge that allows men and women to understand the mystery of God's love for humanity, Pope Francis said.

Having experienced forgiveness, Christians have a duty to forgive others, giving a "visible sign" of God's mercy, which "carries within it the peace of heart and the joy of a renewed encounter with the Lord," the pope said April 23 before praying the "Regina Coeli" with visitors gathered in St. Peter's Square.

"Mercy helps us understand that violence, resentment and revenge do not have any meaning and that the first victim is the one who lives with these feelings, because he is deprived of his own dignity," he said.

Commemorating Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis said St. John Paul II's establishment of the feast in 2000 was a "beautiful intuition" inspired by the Holy Spirit.

God's mercy, he said, not only "opens the door of the mind," it also opens the door of the heart and paves the way for compassion toward those who are "alone or marginalized because it makes them feel they are brothers and sisters and children of one father."

"Mercy, in short, commits us all to being instruments of justice, of reconciliation and peace. Let us never forget that mercy is the keystone in the life of faith, and the concrete form by which we give visibility to Jesus' resurrection," Pope Francis said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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Pope pays tribute to modern martyrs, calls for witnesses of God's love

IMAGE: CNS/Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- The Christian church today needs believers who witness each day to the power of God's love, but it also needs the heroic witness of those who stand up to hatred even when it means giving up their lives, Pope Francis said.

At Rome's Basilica of St. Bartholomew, a shrine to modern martyrs, Pope Francis presided over an evening prayer service April 22, honoring Christians killed under Nazism, communism, dictatorships and terrorism.

"These teach us that with the force of love and with meekness one can fight arrogance, violence and war, and that with patience peace is possible," the pope said in his homily in the small basilica on Rome's Tiber Island.

Departing from his prepared text, Pope Francis said he wanted to add to the martyrs remembered at St. Bartholomew by including "a woman -- I don't know her name -- but she watches from heaven."

The pope said he'd met the woman's husband, a Muslim, in Lesbos, Greece, when he visited a refugee camp there in 2016. The man told the pope that one day, terrorists came to their home. They saw his wife's crucifix and ordered her to throw it on the ground. She refused and they slit her throat.

"I don't know if that man is still at Lesbos or if he has been able to leave that 'concentration camp,'" the pope said, explaining that despite the good will of local communities many refugee camps are overcrowded and are little more than prisons "because it seems international agreements are more important than human rights."

But, getting back to the story of the Muslim man who watched his wife be murdered, the pope said, "Now it's that man, a Muslim, who carries this cross of pain."

"So many Christian communities are the object of persecution today! Why? Because of the hatred of the spirit of this world," the pope said. Jesus has "rescued us from the power of this world, from the power of the devil," who hates Jesus' saving power and "creates the persecution, which from the time of Jesus and the early church continues up to our day."

"What does the church need today?" the pope asked. "Martyrs and witnesses, those everyday saints, those saints of an ordinary life lived with coherence. But it also needs those who have the courage to accept the grace of being witnesses to the end, to the point of death. All of those are the living blood of the church," those who "witness that Jesus is risen, that Jesus lives."

Under a large icon depicting modern martyrs of the gulag and concentration camp, Pope Francis prayed: "O Lord, make us worthy witnesses of your Gospel and your love; pour out your mercy on humanity; renew your church; protect persecuted Christians; and quickly grant the whole world peace."

During the prayer service, Pope Francis wore a stole that had belonged to Chaldean Father Ragheed Aziz Ganni, who was murdered in Mosul, Iraq, in 2007.

Father Ganni's stole along with dozens of other items that belonged to men and women martyred in the 20th and 21st centuries are on display on the side altars at the basilica, which is cared for by the lay Sant'Egidio Community.

During the prayer service, at which Anglican, Lutheran and Orthodox clergy were involved, people who had been close to those honored as martyrs at the shrine spoke.

Karl A. Schneider's father, the Rev. Paul Schneider, was the first Protestant pastor martyred by the Nazis for opposing their hate-filled doctrine. He was married and the father of six children.

"My father was assassinated in 1939 in the Buchenwald concentration camp because he believed the objectives of National Socialism were irreconcilable with the words of the Bible," Schneider told the congregation. "All of us, still today, make too many compromises, but my father remained faithful only to the Lord and to the faith."

The next to speak was Roselyne Hamel, the sister of French Father Jacques Hamel, who was murdered as he celebrated Mass July 26, 2016. The Archdiocese of Rouen has begun his sainthood cause with Pope Francis' approval. Father Hamel's breviary is preserved at St. Bartholomew's.

"Jacques was 85 years old when two young men, radicalized by hate speech, thought they could become heroes by engaging in homicidal violence," his sister told the pope. "At his age, Jacques was fragile, but he also was strong -- strong in his faith in Christ, strong in his love for the Gospel and for people."

His witness to Gospel values continues, she said, in the reaction of Christians who did not call for revenge after his death, but for love and forgiveness. And, she said, the family and local church have experienced "the solidarity of Muslims who wanted to visit our Sunday assemblies after his death."

"For his family, there certainly is pain and a void, but it is a great comfort to see how many new encounters, how much solidarity and love were generated by Jacques' witness," she said.

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Make persecution 'difficult for others to ignore,' cardinal says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- With religious persecution against Christians on the rise worldwide, it is important for other Christians to stand in solidarity with them, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington.

Christians in the United States and elsewhere must raise their voices on behalf of "the millions who are suffering," he said April 20 during a symposium held in connection with the release of "In Response to Persecution, Findings of the Under Caesar's Sword Project on Global Christian Communities," a report detailing the nature of persecution against Christians in different nations across the globe. 

"Make it difficult for others to ignore," the cardinal said.

Doing so, Cardinal Wuerl noted, may require Christians "to be aware" of the persecution their fellow believers face on different continents.

He suggested one response should be to "continue to support the flow of material assistance" to persecuted Christians through aid agencies like Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops' international aid agency; Caritas Internationalis, the Vatican umbrella agency for different nations' Catholic relief organizations; or their counterparts run by other Christian denominations and organizations.

"And we must, of course, continue to pray," said Cardinal Wuerl, who has just had a new book published, "To the Martyrs: A Reflection on the Supreme Christian Witness."

He lamented the rise of intolerance in the Middle East. In Egypt, the cardinal said, "all found a way, until recently, to live together. Under the rise of ISIS ... things have just continued to get worse." He added he believes that, despite last year's declaration by then-Secretary of State John Kerry that the Islamic State group had been responsible for genocide in the regions it controlled in Iraq and Syria, most Americans are not aware of it.

"This is not a Christian crisis of concern only to Christians," Cardinal Wuerl said. "This is a human crisis."

Daniel Philpott, a professor of political science and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame and the principal author of the report, expressed surprise that few persecuted Christians resort to violence. He said there were limited instances of Christian groups forming militias to protect their people and property and, given the situations they face, that reaction may be "understandable and justifiable."

Philpott outlined five contexts in which persecution exists: Islamic persecution, such as applying Shariah law to Christians; communist persecution such as that found in China, Vietnam and North Korea; state-supported persecution, such as in Turkey; religious hostility such as that seen in India; and the West's reaction to a secularizing influence. Philpott quoted Pope Francis, who called the secularization "polite persecution."

Beyond these, there are nongovernmental actors like Islamic State; Philpott called them "Little Caesars" who persecute Christians.

Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore, Pakistan, a country where 3 percent of the country's 120 million people are Christians, said working together with the Muslim majority is the best course of action.

While Pakistan's blasphemy law has resulted in the deaths of many Christians, Archbishop Shaw said he does not want to have the law repealed, but he wants it modified so mob justice is eliminated.

He told the story of a poor Christian couple working in indentured servitude at a brick kiln in the country. Somehow, a rumor spread that the couple had blasphemed Allah. Word got to the local imam, and "within 20 minutes there were 4,000 people" ready to exact their own justice against the couple, who had two children. Soon, both were thrown into the kiln furnace and "within five, seven minutes, they were both burned to death," the archbishop said.

Later, officials discovered that the Christian woman was pregnant, and that both husband and wife were illiterate and could not have committed the blasphemy of which they were accused. "They did not have a Quran in their home," Archbishop Shaw said. "They didn't even have a Bible in their home."

The archbishop said he gives the "two-F" instruction to his Catholics: "Don't fear. Jesus said, 'Do not be afraid,'" he told his audience. "The second F is do not fight, do not fight. No fear, no fight." He said he encourages Catholics to "know your purpose. You were born in Pakistan" for a reason, Archbishop Shaw added. "Know your religion and your religious values, and express them in your life."

The symposium also featured a 27-minute documentary, "Under Caesar's Sword," which explored religious restrictions and violence in Turkey and in India, along with glimpses of situations in Myanmar, Pakistan, Eritrea, Iraq and Syria.

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

 

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Copyright © 2017 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at cns@catholicnews.com.