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Update: Catholics urged to appeal to lawmakers in Congress to pass DACA bill now

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim Lo Scalzo, EPA

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- By day's end Feb. 15, members of the U.S. Senate had rejected four immigration proposals, leaving it unclear how lawmakers will address overall immigration reform and keep the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in place.

Late that afternoon, Archbishop John C. Wester of Santa Fe, New Mexico, issued an urgent alert to Catholics in his archdiocese to raise their voices "to support the 'Dreamers'" and contact their senators and representatives to vote for a bipartisan measure to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which is set to expire March 5.

"Time is running out for them," he said in a statement. "Congress must pass bipartisan legislation that would provide urgently needed relief for Dreamers."

Needing 60 votes for Senate passage, a bipartisan measure that included a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million Dreamers -- those eligible for DACA -- and $25 billion for a border wall failed by six votes. The final vote was 54-45. A bill the Trump administration was supporting was defeated 39 to 60. Two other bills also failed.

The U.S. House was pressing on with its own bill, which by mid-day Feb. 16 was not yet up for a floor vote. Described as "hard line" by opponents, it includes keeping DACA in place, funding a border wall, ending the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, limiting family-based visas, requiring employers to verify job applicants' immigration status and withholding federal grants from so-called "sanctuary" cities.

"As Catholics, we believe the dignity of every human being, particularly that of our immigrant and refugee children and youth, must be protected," Archbishop Wester said in his statement. "The sanctity of families must be upheld. The Catholic bishops have long supported undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents, known as Dreamers, and continue to do so."

Other Catholic leaders decried lawmakers' failure to provide protections for DACA recipients.

Dominican Sister Donna Markham, president and CEO of Catholic Charities USA, called it "deeply heartbreaking."

"While thankful for the bipartisan majority support for protecting DACA youth, it is unconscionable that nearly 800,000 will continue to live in fear and uncertainty," she said Feb. 15.

"As it has for more than 100 years, Catholic Charities will continue to stand with and advocate on behalf of migrants and others in need. Not because they are migrants but because they are children of God," she said.

Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, echoed that disappointment, saying: "These young women and men have done nothing wrong and have known life only in the United States. The Dreamers who are enrolled at Notre Dame are also poised to make lasting contributions to the United States.

"We pray that our leaders will end the cruel uncertainty for these talented and dedicated young people who have so much to offer our nation," he said. "Regardless, Notre Dame will continue to support them financially, maintain their enrollment, provide expert legal assistance should that become necessary and do everything it can to support them."

Even if the legislation seems to be stalling, some like Kevin Appleby, senior director of international migration policy at the Center for Migration Studies of New York, still see hope.

"This is a setback, but the game is not over," he told Catholic News Service Feb. 16. "The silver lining is that the president's framework was roundly rejected, which could clear a path for a narrower bill that provides citizenship to undocumented youth without decimating the family immigration system. The U.S. bishops and the Catholic community can take the lead moving forward by continuing to highlight the moral necessity of offering protection to these young people."

Since September, when President Donald Trump announced he was ending the Obama-era program and told Congress to come up with a legislative fix, the U.S. Catholic bishops individually and as a body have been urging Congress to protect DACA.

Since 2012, DACA has allowed some individuals brought as minors to the United States by their parents without legal permission to receive a renewable two-year period of protection from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals had DACA status.

Since Trump rescinded the program, many immigration advocates have urged members of Congress to pass the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which has long been proposed. The bill is what gives DACA recipients the "Dreamer" name.

In Arizona in late January, Bishop Edward J. Weisenburger of Tucson and his predecessor, now-retired Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas, urged passage of a "clean" bill, like the DREAM Act, to preserve DACA. Their commentary was posted on the diocesan Facebook page.

"While all would agree that reasonable border protection is needed and while clearly countries have a right to protect their borders, it is wrong to barter the lives of these young people by making their protection contingent on a wall or stringent border protection that is unreasonable and a waste of taxpayer's money. Congress should pass the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill," they said.

"We are at a moment in our nation's history that could define who we are as a people. Traditional American values of fairness and compassion are in conflict," they wrote. "This is a situation that is a moral test for our society; we must not fail."

In a Feb. 2 letter to Arkansas' senators and representatives in Congress, Little Rock Bishop Anthony B. Taylor called for grass-roots bipartisan support for "a just and humane solution for the Dreamers whose fate is in your hands." He, too, urged they pass a narrowly focused bill to save DACA.

"If enough members of Congress commit to focusing on a narrowly-tailored bipartisan solution, DACA-only legislation is possible (to) provide urgently needed relief for Dreamers," he wrote. "They and their families who have worked hard and made valuable contributions to our country deserve certainty and compassion. Dreamers should not be used as a political bargaining chip for other legislative proposals."

In a Feb. 2 op-ed in the Daily News, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, New York, struck the same tone, predicting that if Congress tied the fate of these young people to a broader immigration reform measure backed by Trump, it would be "a recipe for getting nothing done, at least in the short term."

"There are times that our elected leaders must act because it is the right thing to do as human beings. This is one of those times," he said. "If the Dreamers are left unprotected, it will leave a stain on our nation's character for years to come. If we pursue justice and welcome them as full Americans, it would be one of our finest hours."

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Rhina Guidos contributed to this story.

 

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Copyright © 2018 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.

Nuns withdraw from ministry in Mexican city wrought by violence

IMAGE: CNS photo/Francisca Meza, EPA

By David Agren

MEXICO CITY (CNS) -- An order of nuns has withdrawn from an especially violent city after the parents and sister of one of the women religious were kidnapped and killed.

The Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, where two priests were murdered Feb. 5, said in a statement that the nuns from the "Comunidad Guadalupana" (Guadalupe Community) had withdrawn because of a lack of security, leaving a school it operated in the city of Chilapa without staff.

Schools in Chilapa had suspended classes from September to December because of the insecurity, the statement said.

The nuns' withdrawal from Chilapa is but the latest hardship for the Diocese of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, which serves parts of southern state of Guerrero, where the heroin trade has exploded in recent years. At least six priests have been murdered there since 2009.

Two priests, Fathers Germain Muniz García and Ivan Anorve Jaime, were shot dead as they drove back from Candlemas celebrations with four other passengers, three of whom were injured.

State prosecutor Xavier Olea Pelaez said originally that the priests had attended the celebrations, where there were armed individuals from three states and that a criminal group and a neighboring state had shot the priests. Olea also said a photo, showing Father Muniz holding an assault rifle and posing with masked men, prompted confusion.

Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa, who has had a tense relationship with the state government, rejected the prosecutor's version of events as a "fairy tale," saying the photo was at least a year old and likely taken with members of a community security force in Father Muniz's hometown. The bishop said after speaking with survivors, who included Father Muniz's sister, that there had been an "incident" on the highway coming back from the celebrations.

"What they're trying to do is blame us," Bishop Rangel said of the prosecutor's statements. "According to them, we move among narcotics traffickers, hence the murdered priests."

In a Feb. 15 statement, the state government said the priests were not members of a criminal group and confirmed details voiced by the bishop.

The priests' murders highlighted a continuing dispute between the state government and Bishop Rangel, who has sought out cartel bosses for dialogue to calm the state and to allow his priests to serve poor and isolated communities sustained by planting opium poppies.

He also has spoken critically of alleged collusion between the cartels and politicians, the police and the army.

"All of Guerrero is controlled by narcotics traffickers. This is a fact," Bishop Rangel told Catholic News Service. "The authorities themselves have been displaced."

Chilapa has turned especially violent as drug cartels fight over the city, which is considered strategically important for transporting heroin to the United States.

At least 15 drug cartels are operating in Guerrero, according to state government spokesman Roberto Alvarez Heredia, who attributed the rising violence over territory and a burgeoning illegal heroin-supply business. He said the cartels engage in kidnapping and extortion because it provides quick cash to cover the "payrolls" for their foot soldiers.

Alvarez said the authorities "did not share" Bishop Rangel's opinions and did not look well on his meeting with criminal groups, but they did "respect" the bishop and his office.

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Update: Florida school shooting an act of 'horrifying evil,' says Miami archbishop

IMAGE: CNS photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters

By

MIAMI (CNS) -- Miami Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski urged community members to come together "to support one another in this time of grief" after a shooting rampage Feb. 14 at a Broward County high school left at least 17 people dead and at least 14 injured.

"With God's help, we can remain strong and resolute to resist evil in all its manifestations," the archbishop said in a statement. "May God heal the brokenhearted and comfort the sorrowing as we once again face as a nation another act of senseless violence and horrifying evil."

In a late-night telegram to Archbishop Wenski, Pope Francis assured "all those affected by this devastating attack of his spiritual closeness."

"With the hope that such senseless acts of violence may cease," he invoked "divine blessings of peace and strength" on the South Florida community.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called for prayer and healing. He urged all unite their "prayers and sacrifices for the healing and consolation" of those affected by the violence in South Florida and for a society "with fewer tragedies caused by senseless gun violence."

Law enforcement officials identified the shooting suspect as 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons from the school where he opened fire -- Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

On the afternoon of Feb. 14, Cruz allegedly went on the shooting rampage shortly before school was to let out for the day. He was apprehended about an hour after shots were reported at the school. He is being held without bond on 17 counts of first-degree premeditated murder in the attack.

The suspect carried an AR-15 rifle and had "countless magazines," Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said. He also told reporters that of the 17 fatalities, "12 people died in the school, two were killed outside the school, one died on the street and another two died at the hospital." Several others were transported to the hospital. Details about the shooter's motive were still being pieced together.

Thousands of mourners remembered the victims at a candlelight vigil held near the high school the evening of Feb. 15. Still others attended a prayer service at Mary Help of Christians Catholic Church in Parkland.

Earlier in the day Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie called the school shooting "a horrific situation. It is a horrible day for us." Florida Gov. Rick Scott said, "This is just absolutely pure evil."

Pope Francis was "deeply saddened to learn of the tragic shooting," Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state said in telegram he sent to Archbishop Wenski on behalf of the pope. "He prays that Almighty God may grant eternal rest to the dead and healing and consolation to the wounded and those who grieve."

"We are deeply saddened by the shootings in Broward County, Florida, and by the needless and tragic loss of life," Cardinal DiNardo said in his statement. "May the mercy of God comfort the grieving families and sustain the wounded in their healing.

"Catholics and many other Christians have begun the journey of Lent today," he said. "I encourage us to unite our prayers and sacrifices for the healing and consolation of all those who have been affected by violence in these last weeks and for a conversion of heart, that our communities and nation will be marked by peace. I pray also for unity in seeking to build toward a society with fewer tragedies caused by senseless gun violence."

Archbishop Wenski added in his statement: "This Ash Wednesday, we begin our Lenten Season that calls us to penance and conversion. With God's help, we can remain strong and resolute to resist evil in all its manifestations."

Via Twitter, various U.S. bishops offered condolences and urged for something to be done to stop the violence.

"We must prevent those who are mentally ill from access to deadly firearms," said Boston Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley. "We can and must do better for each other by coming together as a society with the resolve to stop this senseless violence."

News reports said the suspect had been in treatment for depression but had stopped seeking help.

Bishop Richard J. Malone of Buffalo, New York, via Twitter reminded others of St. John Paul II's warning 25 years ago that Western society is becoming a "culture of death."

"Sadly, he was right. Can we join together and reverse this?" he asked.

U.S. President Donald Trump via television Feb. 15 urged children who feel "lost, alone, confused or even scared" to seek help.

Various reports said the suspected shooter had recently lost his mother and was living with a friend's family while dealing with depression.

Trump also expressed condolences to families whose children died in the massacre.

"To every parent, teacher and child who is hurting so badly, we are here for you, whatever you need, whatever we can do, to ease your pain. We are all joined together as one American family and your suffering is our burden also," Trump said. "No child, no teacher should ever be in danger in an American school. No parent should ever have to fear for their sons and daughters when they kiss them goodbye in the morning."

Amid the outpouring of sympathyand calls for gun control and other action to stop mass shootings was a statement from the Sisters of Mercy. The community said its members were united in prayer and expressed grief, sympathy and love for "the victims, the families and the witnesses whose sense of safety in their schools has been irrevocably broken."

"However, we acknowledge that our prayer alone is not enough. Our faith and mercy tradition call us to unceasingly decry the industries, systems and culture that enable this terrible hate and violence," the sisters said in a statement.

They questioned how the more than 300 school shootings reported since Sandy Hook in 2012 could occur "when the entire country was outraged" following that horrific massacre in Connecticut.

"When will this stop?" they asked. "We will raise our individual and collective voices to speak out against legislation, the gun lobby, industry and organizations that promote and perpetuate a culture of hate and violence."

In Pennsylvania, Greensburg Bishop Edward C. Malesic said: "Prayers are powerful, and prayers are a necessary part of any Christian response to evil. But we have to start taking action to stop this carnage."

"Pray to God that in addition to helping the victims and their families heal from this unimaginable tragedy, that he burn in your heart the courage to stand up and combat this problem," he continued, "whether it is by advocating for better mental health services, working to help end bullying in our schools, responding to the needs of boys and young men so they don't see a gun massacre as a solution to their problems, working to promote respect for life, and, yes, advocating for common sense gun laws."


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Copyright © 2018 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.

Updated: Pope told Jesuits he regularly meets abuse survivors, journal reports

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis told a group of Jesuits in Peru that he often meets on Fridays with survivors of sex abuse.

The meetings, which he said do not always become public knowledge, make it clear that the survivors' process of recovery "is very hard. They remain annihilated. Annihilated," the pope had told the Jesuits Jan. 19 in Lima.

The scandal of clerical sexual abuse shows not only the "fragility" of the Catholic Church, he said, "but also -- let us speak clearly -- our level of hypocrisy."

The director of the Vatican press office Feb. 15 confirmed that the pope's meetings with abuse survivors is regular and ongoing.

"I can confirm that several times a month, the Holy Father meets victims of sexual abuse both individually and in groups," said Greg Burke, the director. "Pope Francis listens to the victims and tries to help them heal the serious wounds caused by the abuse they've suffered. The meetings take place with maximum reserve out of respect for the victims and their suffering."

On his trips abroad, Pope Francis usually spends time with local Jesuit communities and holds a question-and-answer session with them. Weeks later, a transcript of the exchange is published by Civilta Cattolica, a Jesuit journal in Rome.

The transcribed and translated texts from Pope Francis' conversations with Jesuits in Chile Jan. 16 and in Peru three days later were released in Italian and English by Civilta Cattolica Feb. 15 with the pope's approval, the journal said.

The Jesuits in Chile had not asked the pope about the abuse scandal, even though the scandal was in the news, particularly because of ongoing controversy over the pope's appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, who had been accused of covering up the abuse committed by his mentor, Father Fernando Karadima.

Pope Francis met with the Jesuits in Santiago at the end of his first full day in Chile. Earlier that day he had met with "a small group" of people who had been abused by Chilean priests, according to the Vatican press office.

The meeting with the survivors and with the Chilean Jesuits took place days before Chilean reporters asked Pope Francis about the accusations against Bishop Barros and he replied, "The day they bring me proof against Bishop Barros, I will speak. There is not one piece of evidence against him. It is calumny. Is that clear?"

The pope later apologized for the remark and, soon after returning to Rome, sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta, an experienced investigator, to Chile to conduct interviews.

After the pope left Chile and flew on to Peru, the topic of abuse was even more pressing. In the context of a discussion about spiritual "consolation" and "desolation," one Jesuit told the pope, "I would like you to say something about a theme that leads to a lot of desolation in the church, and particularly among religious men and women and the clergy: the theme of sexual abuse. We are very disturbed by these scandals."

Abuse, Pope Francis replied, "is the greatest desolation that the church is suffering. It brings shame, but we need to remember that shame is also a very Ignatian grace." In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, encouraged people to contemplate Jesus' goodness and their own wickedness, asking for the grace to be ashamed.

The pope told the Peruvian Jesuits that it is a temptation for people in the church to seek a "consolation prize" by comparing statistics about abuse within the church and abuse within families or in other organizations.

But even if the abuse rate is lower in the church, the pope said, "it is terrible even if only one of our brothers is such! For God anointed him to sanctify children and adults, and instead of making them holy he has destroyed them. It's horrible! We need to listen to what someone who has been abused feels."

At that point the pope told the Jesuits in Peru, "On Fridays -- sometimes this is known and sometimes it is not known -- I normally meet some of them. In Chile I also had such a meeting."

The abuse scandal is "a great humiliation" for the Catholic Church, he said. "It shows not only our fragility, but also -- let us say so clearly -- our level of hypocrisy."

Pope Francis also told the Jesuits in Peru that "it is notable that there are some newer congregations whose founders have fallen into these abuses." He did not specify which congregations, however.

In the "new, prosperous congregations" where abuse has been a problem, he said, there is a combination of an abuse of authority, sexual abuse and "an economic mess. There is always money involved. The devil enters through the wallet."

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Lent is time to notice God's work, receive God's mercy, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Lent is a time for Christians to get their hearts in sync with the heart of Jesus, Pope Francis said.

"Let the Lord heal the wounds of sin and fulfill the prophecy made to our fathers: 'A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh,'" the pope said Feb. 14, celebrating Mass and distributing ashes at the beginning of Lent.

After a brief prayer at the Benedictine's Monastery of St. Anselm, Pope Francis made the traditional Ash Wednesday procession to the Dominican-run Basilica of Santa Sabina on Rome's Aventine Hill for the Mass.

He received ashes on his head from 93-year-old Cardinal Jozef Tomko, titular cardinal of the basilica, and he distributed ashes to the cardinals present, three Benedictines, three Dominicans, an Italian couple with two children and members of the Pontifical Academy for Martyrs, which promotes the traditional Lenten "station church" pilgrimage in Rome.

In his homily, he said the church gives Christians the 40 days of Lent as a time to reflect on "anything that could dampen or even corrode our believing heart."

Everyone experiences temptation, the pope said. Lent is a time to pause and step back from situations that lead to sin, a time to see how God is at work in others and in the world and, especially, a time to return to the Lord, knowing that his mercy is boundless.

Lent, he said, is a time "to allow our hearts to beat once more in tune with the vibrant heart of Jesus."

Hitting the reset button, the pope said, requires taking a pause from "bitter feelings, which never get us anywhere" and from a frantic pace of life that leaves too little time for family, friends, children, grandparents and God.

People need to pause from striving to be noticed, from snooty comments and "haughty looks," he said; instead, they need to show tenderness, compassion and even reverence for others.

"Pause for a little while, refrain from the deafening noise that weakens and confuses our hearing, that makes us forget the fruitful and creative power of silence," the pope said.

Use the pauses of Lent "to look and contemplate," he suggested. Christians can learn from seeing the gestures others make that "keep the flame of faith and hope alive."

"Look at faces alive with God's tenderness and goodness working in our midst," the pope said, pointing to the faces of families who struggle to survive yet continue to love, the wrinkled faces of the elderly "that reflect God's wisdom at work" and the faces of the sick and their caregivers who "remind us that the value of each person can never be reduced to a question of calculation or utility."

"See the remorseful faces of so many who try to repair their errors and mistakes, and who from their misfortune and suffering, fight to transform their situations and move forward," Pope Francis said.

But most of all, he said, "see and contemplate the real face of Christ crucified out of love for everyone, without exception. For everyone? Yes, for everyone. To see his face is an invitation filled with hope for this Lenten time, in order to defeat the demons of distrust, apathy and resignation.

The invitation, he said, is to "return without fear to those outstretched, eager arms of your Father, who is rich in mercy, who awaits you."

"Return without fear to join in the celebration of those who are forgiven," the pope said. "Return without fear to experience the healing and reconciling tenderness of God."

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Sisters from Minnesota Catholic schools play on separate Olympic teams

IMAGE: CNS photo/Adam Bettcher, Reuters

By Matthew Davis

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Few schools can claim an Olympic athlete among their alumni base.

Even fewer schools have more than one, especially from the same family. But Hill-Murray High School in Maplewood and St. Odilia School in Shoreview -- both Catholic schools -- are proud to make this claim.

That's because Hannah and Marissa Brandt, graduates of both schools, play on women's Olympic ice hockey teams competing in this year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Hannah Brandt, a recent standout with the University of Minnesota women's hockey team, is a forward for the U.S. Olympic team, which defeated Finland 3-1 on Feb. 11 and will play Olympic Athletes from Russia Feb. 13. Marissa Brandt, who was adopted as a baby from South Korea, used her birth name, Park-Yoon Jung, for the Olympics and plays defense for the combined Koreas, which lost 8-0 to Switzerland Feb. 10.

Hill-Murray and St. Odilia recognized the sisters' achievements in the weeks leading up to the games. The St. Odilia school office has a display of the Brandts' successes.

Brian Ragatz, St. Odilia principal, said students are encouraged knowing that these athletes sat in the same desks as they do. He said it "really inspires them a little bit more to go out and reach their goal, because it seems a little bit more attainable."

Students at Hill-Murray held a red, white and blue dress-up day during National Catholic Schools Week. They wore the colors to raise funds for parents of Olympians to attend the games.

Hill-Murray had T-shirts and sweatshirts made to celebrate the Brandts. The school will also televise their games in the commons area.

Principal Erin Herman said the Brandt sisters excelled on and off the ice in high school.

"Not only are they great athletes, both Hannah and Marissa were outstanding students and all-around wonderful young women," Herman said. "They are both humble and kind; you would not have known they were Olympic athletes when you met them in the hall."

At St. Odilia, music teacher Carrie Northrop told the elementary school students about the schools' two Olympians, whom she taught.

"This had been a goal of Hannah's since she was a little girl. This was something she talked about when she was going through elementary school," Northrop said.

Northrop said Marissa Brandt originally was more of a figure skater but chose hockey because of her closeness to her sister. Marissa Brandt had a standout career at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter before making the Korean team.

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Davis is on the staff of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

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Copyright © 2018 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.

'Monumental' FEMA shift opens door to disaster funds for religious groups

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Ginny Blasi

By David Karas

TRENTON, N.J. (CNS) -- Superstorm Sandy-weary diocesan and parish officials lauded a Federal Emergency Management Agency policy change announced earlier this year that reverses a prior exclusion for religious organizations and houses of worship from applying for federal aid to recover from natural disasters.

"This change in eligibility for FEMA public assistance to religious organizations is monumental," said Joe Cahill, director of the Diocese of Trenton's Department of Risk Management.

Cahill's comments came before the Feb. 9 passage of the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act by Congress as part of the Bipartisan Budget Act. The bill, signed into law by President Donald Trump, codifies this change in FEMA policy.

The fairness provision directs FEMA to make disaster relief assistance available to houses of worship "on the same terms as other nonprofit entities," said a statement released the same day by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which had urged its passage.

These provisions ensure that houses of worship are treated fairly. That's good not only for houses of worship but for the communities that depend on them," added the statement issued jointly by Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, chairman of the Committee for Religious Liberty, and Bishop Joseph C. Bambera of Scranton, Pennsylvania, chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

When it announced the policy change Jan. 2, FEMA attributed it to a 7-2 U.S. Supreme Court decision last June, which held that Trinity Lutheran Church in Missouri should not have been denied a public benefit just because it is a church.

In urging Congress to pass the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act, the U.S. bishops and others also cited the Trinity Lutheran case.

Damage to Texas churches and Florida synagogues following hurricanes Harvey and Irma sparked additional legal challenges, as well as lawsuits filed against FEMA. In the fall, members of Congress -- including Rep. Chris Smith, R-New Jersey -- advocated for legislative changes to allow for disaster relief funding eligibility for houses of worship.

In an interview prior to the federal budget bill's passage, Cahill said the ongoing debate over the funding has resonated across the Diocese of Trenton, particularly in areas affected by Superstorm Sandy.

"The memory of Sandy remains at the Diocese of Trenton," Cahill told The Monitor, newspaper of The Trenton Diocese. "Many parishes on the barrier islands and other coastal areas have not fully recovered. Some homes remain abandoned or have been demolished.

"Parishioner count has declined in some locations as local economies suffered from the effects of the storm and (as) people moved away for reason of employment or available housing."

Some 65 individual parish properties incurred more than $14 million in damages and cleanup costs in Superstorm Sandy, Cahill said.

Considerable funds were necessary for removing debris, pumping out flood waters, decontaminating flooded buildings and demolishing water-damaged infrastructure, with churches, chapels, schools, community centers, food pantries, rectories, convents, offices, cemeteries and other diocesan and church properties among the affected sites.

"If FEMA assistance was available early on, it would have eased the cash flow burden on the Diocese and parishes," Cahill said, "as the cost of emergency work in the early days after the storm was significant and could have covered a portion of the flood insurance deductible for a named storm."

Under the prior review process, Cahill said that a religious organization would have to prove that assistance was for flood damage to buildings that were not religious in nature -- but even then, the process was lengthy.

Msgr. Edward J. Arnister, pastor of St. Rose Parish, remembers all too well the significant damage his parish and school community sustained at the hands of Superstorm Sandy. It took four weeks before the church could reopen, and all electric, heat and air conditioning systems had to be replaced. The parish center and first floor of St. Rose High School had to be completely restored and rebuilt, and the roof of St. Rose Grammar School was torn off by wind and had to be replaced.

"I can't emphasize enough that good planning and management by the Diocese of Trenton in having adequate flood insurance saved the day," Msgr. Arnister told The Monitor. "St. Rose would have been in serious financial difficulty without that." FEMA did provide some limited funding for recovery efforts.

In Congress, Smith introduced the Federal Disaster Assistance Nonprofit Fairness Act first in 2013, and again in 2015 and 2017.

Houses of worship "are hubs in our communities for humanitarian assistance year-round, and especially during times of natural disaster," he said in an interview before the vote on his legislation as part of the budget bill.

Smith praised the Diocese of Trenton for its "professional and meticulous" response to Superstorm Sandy, noting the significant role that religious organizations play in the wake of a natural disaster.

"So many churches are directly involved in disaster relief and bring with them a cadre of committed volunteers," he said.

"In every federal disaster, local synagogues, churches -- their schools, community centers, and physical houses of worship -- provide supplies, food, medicines, shelters and coordination of volunteer services," Smith said.

"Without them, our national recovery efforts would be significantly diminished and as such, churches should not be discriminated against when applying for federal assistance," he added.

James King, director of the Office of Social Concerns for the New Jersey Catholic Conference -- the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops -- visited Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, which left in its path significant devastation. King was on hand to support Catholic Charities efforts on the island.

Reflecting on his experience, King shared his observations on how church communities stepped up to provide support to victims, despite the significant damage sustained by those communities themselves.

"I worked with local parishes that converted parts of church buildings into distribution centers for essential items like food and water, despite damage to those buildings," King said. "Throughout my deployment, I heard numerous times that if it were not for the Catholic Church having numerous facilities throughout the island, some towns would not have received these essential items."

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Karas is a correspondent for The Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.

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Update: Faith essential to story for real-life heroes of '15:17 to Paris'

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Warner Bros.

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO (CNS) -- It's almost a miracle that Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone are even alive.

Yet here they are, promoting a major Hollywood film in which they portray themselves. For all three, faith is an essential part of their story.

On Aug. 21, 2015, while on a backpacking trip through Europe, their Paris-bound train was attacked by a terrorist whose arsenal included an assault rifle and 270 rounds of ammunition. The three childhood friends were able to subdue him, saving the lives of the more than 500 passengers on board the train.

They became instant celebrities and were honored by both the French and U.S. governments for their heroism.

The three men happened to be in the right place at the right time. Skills they had developed -- including Skarlatos' and Stone's military experience, the former's proficiency with firearms, and the latter's training in jujitsu and as a medic -- all came into play.

And if just one of many variables had been different -- had they not been seated where they were, had the terrorist's rifle not jammed when Stone charged him -- it would have resulted in tragedy.

On the day of the train attack, the three friends "survived something ... that we really shouldn't have," Sadler told Catholic News Service during a Feb. 2 interview with the three heroes. The son of a Baptist minister, he said that fateful day felt "like a biblical moment" for him, reaffirming his conviction that God had a plan for his life.

Stone, a former U.S. Air Force staff sergeant, said "there's just no way you can deny" that divine providence was at work.

"There's just too much going on for it to just be coincidence," offered Skarlatos, a former Army National Guard specialist.

Their story gets the big-screen treatment in a new film, "The 15:17 to Paris," which will be released in theaters Feb. 9. Directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the memoir the men co-wrote with Jeffrey E. Stern, the film traces their journeys from youth to adulthood, showing how their life experiences prepared them to react as they did.

As far as the three friends are concerned, any account of their story would be incomplete if it left out their Christian faith.

"You can't tell the story without ' the faith element," Sadler said, because "that's who we are."

References to God and prayer can be found throughout the film. The Christian middle school that Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone attended is not portrayed positively, but the three friends and their parents are shown to be people of faith.

When a public school teacher later suggests that Stone's future is bleak because he is the product of a single-parent household, his mother (portrayed by actress Judy Greer) defiantly declares, "My God is bigger than your statistics."

In another scene, Skarlatos' mother (portrayed by Jenna Fischer) tells her son that, in her prayers for his well-being, she had received the assurance that he was destined for something great. Elsewhere, Stone can be seen asking a wounded train passenger if he would like him to pray.

Sadler said he appreciates that the film doesn't depict the three friends as perfect. They are all Christians, he said, but the film also shows them "doing some things (that are) not so smart."

Perhaps unlike many other Hollywood films, "The 15:17 to Paris" has provided its stars with opportunities to evangelize. For Stone, it has presented "a huge platform" from which "to spread the word of God." In each interview he has given, he said, he has tried "to make sure I gave God the credit."

Grateful to be alive and able to share their story, the three friends also consider themselves blessed to have that story brought to the screen by a filmmaker of Eastwood's stature.

A poster for Eastwood's 2006 film "Letters From Iwo Jima," displayed on the wall of young Spencer's bedroom in one scene from the film, wasn't just a clever cameo on Eastwood's part. In fact, Skarlatos said, it's an acknowledgement of the fact that both he and Stone "literally grew up on (Eastwood's) movies."

In another scene, Skarlatos himself is seen wearing a T-shirt featuring Eastwood's likeness from the 1985 western "Pale Rider"; it's a shirt that came from Skarlatos' own wardrobe.

"You build up people a lot in your head as to who they are," he said. But Eastwood turned out to be "just as cool and calm as you would imagine" and "more personable and funny."

The three friends hope the film will deliver the message that ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things and that every life has a purpose.

Sadler is confident that it "does a good job of showing how ordinary the three of us are," which he hopes will inspire others when they encounter adversity.

"It doesn't have to be terrorists on a train, but it could be anything they face in their own life," he said. "Hopefully, it inspires them to know that they're capable."

Skarlatos hopes that the film will speak to those who struggle to understand their life's purpose.

"I just hope people realize that ' they might not be on the path that they think they should be on or not doing what they want to do," he said, "but it's the thing that they need to do."

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Grasska is assistant editor of The Southern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of San Diego.

 

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Acts of love, courage are signs of God's grace in the U.S., Trump says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Acts of love, courage and sacrifice by first responders, parents and children alike are hallmarks of a country that is rooted in prayer and deep faith in God, President Donald Trump told the National Prayer Breakfast.

The president held up as "American heroes" people from many walks of life who strive to help others as part of their daily routines and in emergencies. He said they are signs of God's grace during a 14-minute speech Feb. 8 at the Washington Hilton Hotel.

In particular, Trump cited American servicemen and servicewomen around the world "defending our great American flag," police officers "who sacrifice for their communities," teachers who "work tirelessly" for their students and parents who "work two and three jobs to give their children a better, a much more prosperous and happier life" as signs of inspiration.

"American heroes reveal God's calling," he said.

"All we have to do is open our eyes and look around us and we can see God's hand in the courage of our fellow citizens. We see the work of God's love in the power of souls," he said.

Such actions are powered by prayer, he said.

Trump also revisited a common theme of earlier speeches: the effort to push out Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He said the militants had tortured Christians, Jews and even fellow Muslims in the territories they occupied, but that they had been almost totally overrun.

"Much work will always remain. But we will never rest until that job is completely done," the president said.

Trump concluded by noting the courage and inspiration of a 9-year-old Brownfield, Texas, girl faced with the possibility of not walking again after several strokes. Sophia Maria Campa-Peters, sitting at a front-row table with her mother at the breakfast, learned from doctors that she would not be able to walk because of the strokes, he said.

"She replied, 'If you're only going to talk about what I can't do, I don't want to hear about it. Just let me try to walk,'" Trump told the gathering.

As Sophia prepared for surgery Jan. 24 to continue treatment for the disease that caused the strokes, she sought prayers from people. Her goal was 10,000 prayers, Trump continued, but she surpassed the goal, even getting the president and members of his administration to ask God to intervene for her health.

"Today we thank God and she's walking very well," he said.

"You may be only 9 years old, but you are already a hero for all of us in this room and all over the world. Thank you, Sophia," Trump said.

"Through love, courage and sacrifice, we glimpse the grace of almighty God," the president added. "So through that grace, let us resolve ourselves to ask for an extra measure of strength and devotion and seek a more just and peaceful world where every child can grow up without violence, worship without fear and reach their God-given potential.

"We can all be heroes to everybody and they can be heroes to us. As long as we open our eyes to God's grace and open our hearts to God's love, then America will always be the land of the free, home of the brave and the light for all nations."

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

 

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Protecting social service safety net is Catholic priority with Congress

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Dennis Sadowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Catholic advocates visited Capitol Hill Feb. 6 hoping members of Congress were ready to listen to their push for a federal budget that makes the needs of poor and vulnerable people a priority.

Coming at the end of the annual Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, their visits took on greater urgency as Congress faced a Feb. 8 deadline to pass a budget deal or approve another stopgap spending measure to keep the government operating.

The advocates' main concern stemmed from the willingness of some in Congress to consider deep cuts in the social service safety net to offset part of the $1 trillion deficit expected over the next decade under the tax reform bill passed in December.

The most vulnerable programs: Medicare and Medicaid; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps; The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP; and international humanitarian and poverty-reducing assistance.

Other "asks" included a path to citizenship for 1.8 million young adults who were brought illegally into the country as children; increasing the value of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a primary vehicle that helps finance new affordable housing projects; and maintaining "strong and vibrant investments" in diplomacy and overseas development that leads to peaceful societies.

Even with a budget that spares deep cuts for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, there's talk that the 2019 budget plan due out in mid-February from the Office of Management and Budget will zero in on the very programs the advocates want to protect for a significantly smaller share of the federal pie.

In the current Washington environment there are other concerns, of course -- climate change, education, Social Security, the minimum wage and worker rights, to name a few. For now though, social services, housing and international aid were deemed the most pressing by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities USA.

Trying to determine what issues are most important on any given day has given headaches to the three agencies as they see new crises emerge daily and the stances of President Donald Trump shift, seemingly, hour by hour.

Still, the three agencies coordinate as much as possible to ensure there is a consistent message coming from Catholics.

"On the budget stuff, we work on a one-church strategy," Bill O'Keefe, vice president for government relations and advocacy at CRS, told Catholic News Service.

International humanitarian and poverty-reducing aid has long been supported by CRS and the USCCB. Funding for international programs including disaster assistance, peacekeeping operations, and the President's Emergency Plan for HIV/AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, totaled about $24.5 billion in fiscal year 2017. That's about 0.5 percent of the federal budget, noted Stephen Colecchi, director of the USCCB's Office of International Justice and Peace.

At Catholic Charities USA, addressing the need for affordable housing remains a priority and for officials there increasing the value of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, or LIHTC, is a must.

The tax credit has funded 30 percent of the nation's 10 million affordable housing units. Catholic Charities agencies nationwide use it as a tool to attract investment in the housing projects they develop.

However, the tax reform act is expected to make the credit less attractive to investors.

With the corporate tax rate reduced from 35 percent to 21 percent, high-level investors are less likely to invest in the construction of new affordable housing projects to take advantage of LIHTC, Stephen Caprobres, executive director of Housing for Hope, Inc. of Catholic Charities Community Services in the Phoenix Diocese, said during a social ministry gathering workshop.

The country already faces a shortage of more than 7 million affordable housing units and should fewer projects be built, housing advocates fear the crunch will worsen.

Social ministry gathering delegates and Catholic agencies aren't the only ones concerned about potential budget cuts in social services. Nearly 1,000 women religious voiced their views in letters to House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, that were supposed to be delivered to his office on Capitol Hill in December.

Two women religious from Ryan's district, Dominican Sister Erica Jordan of Kenosha and Franciscan Sister Ruth Brings of Janesville, were scheduled to meet with Ryan's deputy chief of staff, but the meeting was canceled by the time their plane landed in Washington, according to the Catholic social justice lobby Network.

Sister Kathleen Kanet, a member of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary in New York City, told CNS she came up with the idea of religious sisters writing letters as she read news reports about Ryan, who is Catholic, discussing the need for spending cuts to help balance the federal budget. Network helped coordinate the effort.

Sister Kanet said she thought the speaker should hear from women religious, many of whom see the daily struggles of families living in poverty.

"I'm thinking who can challenge that in the light of Jesus," she said. "It became so clear to me that religious sisters can do this."

As of Feb. 7, the letters had yet to be delivered. Network leaders were determining how they might be helpful as budget drama unfolds.

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German cardinal urges pastoral care, but not 'blessing' of gay couples

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sascha Steinbach, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- The president of the German bishops' conference urged priests to provide better pastoral care to Catholics who are homosexual, but he said, "I think that would not be right" when asked if he could imagine the Catholic Church blessing gay couples.

The German bishops' conference released an English translation Feb. 7 of remarks Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, conference president, made during a radio interview Feb. 3.

German Catholic media had interpreted the cardinal's remarks as moving a step back from a suggestion made by Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck in January that the Catholic Church should debate the possibility of a blessing ceremony for Catholic gay couples involved in the church.

But some English-language media and blogs portrayed Cardinal Marx's remarks as meaning he "endorses" such blessing ceremonies.

The coverage led Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia to write a blog encouraging bishops to be clear about what they intend or don't intend to suggest on the subject.

And, Archbishop Chaput said, "any such 'blessing rite' would cooperate in a morally forbidden act, no matter how sincere the persons seeking the blessing. Such a rite would undermine the Catholic witness on the nature of marriage and the family. It would confuse and mislead the faithful. And it would wound the unity of our church, because it could not be ignored or met with silence."

The Catholic Church insists marriage can be only between a man and a woman. It teaches that while homosexual people deserve respect and spiritual care, homosexual activity is sinful.

In the interview with Cardinal Marx, the journalist said many people believe the church should bless gay unions, ordain women to the diaconate and end obligatory celibacy for priests in the Latin-rite church.

According to the bishops' conference translation, Cardinal Marx said he did not believe those changes were what the church needs most today. "Rather, the question to be asked is how the church can meet the challenges posed by the new circumstances of life today -- but also by new insights, of course. For example, in the field of pastoral work, pastoral care."

Following the teaching and example of Pope Francis in pastoral care, he said, "we have to consider the situation of the individual, his life history, his biography, the disruptions he goes through, the hopes that arise, the relationships he lives in -- or she lives in. We have to take this more seriously and have to try harder to accompany people in their circumstances of life."

The same is true in ministering to people who are homosexual, he said. "We must be pastorally close to those who are in need of pastoral care and also want it. And one must also encourage priests and pastoral workers to give people encouragement in concrete situations. I do not really see any problems there. An entirely different question is how this is to be done publicly and liturgically. These are things you have to be careful about, and reflect on them in a good way."

While excluding "general solutions" such as a public ritual, Cardinal Marx said, "that does not mean that nothing happens, but I really have to leave that to the pastor on the ground, accompanying an individual person with pastoral care. There you can discuss things, as is currently being debated, and consider: How can a pastoral worker deal with it? However, I really would emphatically leave that to the pastoral field and the particular, individual case at hand, and not demand any sets of rules again -- there are things that cannot be regulated."

The spokesman of the bishops' conference said the cardinal was unavailable for further interviews.

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Pilgrim pope: Benedict says he's journeying toward God

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- "I am on a pilgrimage toward Home," retired Pope Benedict XVI wrote, capitalizing the Italian word "casa" or "home."

Almost exactly five years after announcing his intention to be the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign, Pope Benedict wrote the letter to a journalist from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

"I am touched to know how many of the readers of your newspaper want to know how I am experiencing this last period of my life," the 90-year-old retired pope wrote. "In that regard, I can only say that, with the slow diminishing of my physical strength, inwardly I am on a pilgrimage toward Home."

"It is a great grace in this last, sometimes tiring stage of my journey, to be surrounded by a love and kindness that I never could have imagined," said the letter, written on stationery with the heading "Benedictus XVI, Papa emeritus."

Massimo Franco, the journalist, said the letter, dated Feb. 5, was hand-delivered; the newspaper posted it online Feb. 6 and published it on the front page of the print edition Feb. 7.

During a meeting with cardinals Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict stunned the cardinals and the world by saying, in Latin, "After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry."

He set the date for his retirement as Feb. 28, 2013. And, seen off by dozens of weeping Vatican employees, he flew by helicopter to the papal villa at Castel Gandolfo, where he remained until after Pope Francis was elected.

The day before he left was a Wednesday and the overflowing crowd in St. Peter's Square made it clear that it was anything but a normal Wednesday general audience.

He told an estimated 150,000 people that his pontificate, which had lasted almost eight years, was a time of "joy and light, but also difficult moments."

"The Lord has given us so many days of sun and light breeze, days in which the catch of fish has been abundant," he said, likening himself to St. Peter on the Sea of Galilee.

"There have also been moments in which the waters were turbulent and the wind contrary, as throughout the history of the church, and the Lord seemed to be asleep," he said. "But I have always known that the Lord is in that boat and that the boat of the church is not mine, it is not ours, but it is his and he does not let it sink."

A monastery in the Vatican Gardens was remodeled for Pope Benedict, and that is where he has lived for five years, reading, praying, listening to music and welcoming visitors.

Until 2016, the retired pope occasionally would join Pope Francis at important public liturgies, including the Mass for the canonization of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II in 2014 and for the opening of the 2015-2016 Year of Mercy.

Pope Benedict also attended the ceremonies for the creation of new cardinals in 2014 and 2015. But as it became more and more difficult for Pope Benedict to walk, Pope Francis and the new cardinals would get in vans and drive the short distance to the Mater Ecclesiae monastery to pay their respects.

The retired pope's letter to Corriere della Sera echoed remarks he had made the afternoon of his retirement when he arrived in Castel Gandolfo and greeted crowds there before the very dramatic, globally televised scene of Swiss Guards closing the massive doors to the villa and hanging up their halberds.

"I am a simple pilgrim who begins the last stage of his pilgrimage on this earth," he told the people. "But with all my heart, with all my love, with my prayers, with my reflection, with all my interior strength, I still want to work for the common good and the good of the church and humanity."

In "Last Testament," a book-length interview with journalist Peter Seewald published in 2016, Pope Benedict insisted he was not pressured by anyone or any particular event to resign, and he did not feel he was running away from any problem. However, he acknowledged "practical governance was not my forte, and this certainly was a weakness."

Insisting "my hour had passed and I had given all I could," Pope Benedict said he never regretted resigning, but he did regret hurting friends and faithful who were "really distressed and felt forsaken" by his stepping down.

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Lent is time to become aware of false prophets, cold hearts, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Catholics should use the season of Lent to look for signs and symptoms of being under the spell of false prophets and of living with cold, selfish and hateful hearts, Pope Francis said.

Together with "the often bitter medicine of the truth," the church -- as mother and teacher -- offers people "the soothing remedy of prayer, almsgiving and fasting," the pope said in his message for Lent, which begins Feb. 14 for Latin-rite Catholics.

The pope also invited all non-Catholics who are disturbed by the increasing injustice, inertia and indifference in the world, to "join us then in raising our plea to God in fasting and in offering whatever you can to our brothers and sisters in need."

The pope's Lenten message, which was released at the Vatican Feb. 6, looked at Jesus' apocalyptic discourse to the disciples on the Mount of Olives, warning them of the many signs and calamities that will signal the end of time and the coming of the son of man.

Titled, "Because of the increase of evildoing, the love of many will grow cold" (Mt. 24:12), the papal message echoes Jesus' caution against the external enemies of false prophets and deceit, and the internal dangers of selfishness, greed and a lack of love.

Today's false prophets, the pope wrote, "can appear as 'snake charmers,' who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others and lead them where they would have them go."

So many of God's children, he wrote, are: "mesmerized by momentary pleasures, mistaking them for true happiness"; enchanted by money's illusion, "which only makes them slaves to profit and petty interests"; and convinced they are autonomous and "sufficient unto themselves, and end up entrapped by loneliness!"

"False prophets can also be 'charlatans,' who offer easy and immediate solutions to suffering that soon prove utterly useless," he wrote. People can be trapped by the allure of drugs, "disposable relationships," easy, but dishonest gains as well as "virtual," but ultimately meaningless relationships, he wrote.

"These swindlers, in peddling things that have no real value, rob people of all that is most precious: dignity, freedom and the ability to love," the message said.

The pope asked people to examine their heart to see "if we are falling prey to the lies of these false prophets" and to learn to look at things more closely, "beneath the surface," and recognize that what comes from God is life-giving and leaves "a good and lasting mark on our hearts."

Christians also need to look for any signs that their love for God and others has started to dim or grow cold, the pope said.

Greed for money is a major red flag, he wrote, because it is the "root of all evil" and soon leads to a rejection of God and his peace.

"All this leads to violence against anyone we think is a threat to our own 'certainties': the unborn child, the elderly and infirm, the migrant, the foreigner among us, or our neighbor who does not live up to our expectations," the pope wrote.

Another sign of love turned cold is the problem of pollution, he said, which causes creation to become poisoned by waste, "discarded out of carelessness or selfishness."

The polluted oceans unfortunately also become a burial ground for countless victims of forced migration and "the heavens, which in God's plan, were created to sing his praises," are slashed by machinery that rain down instruments of death, he wrote.

Whole communities, he said, also can show signs of a cold lack of love wherever there is selfish sloth, sterile pessimism, the temptation to become isolated, constant internal fighting and a "worldly mentality that makes us concerned only for appearances, and thus lessens our missionary zeal."

The remedy for these ills can be strengthened during Lent with prayer, almsgiving and fasting, he wrote.

Praying more enables "our hearts to root out our secret lies and forms of self-deception, and then to find the consolation God offers," he said in his message.

"Almsgiving sets us free from greed and helps us to regard our neighbor as a brother or sister," it said.

Urging people to make charitable giving and assistance a genuine part of their everyday life, he asked that people look at every request for help as a request from God himself. Look at almsgiving as being part of God's generous and providential plan, and helping his children in need.

Finally, "fasting weakens our tendency to violence; it disarms us and becomes an important opportunity for growth," he said, while also letting people feel what it must be like for those who struggle to survive.

It also "expresses our own spiritual hunger and thirst for life in God. Fasting wakes us up. It makes us more attentive to God and our neighbor," he wrote, and "revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger."

The pope also reminded people to take part in the "24 Hours for the Lord" initiative March 9-10 in which many dioceses will have at least one church open for 24 hours, offering eucharistic adoration and the sacrament of reconciliation.

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Editor's Note: The text of the pope's message in English is online at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/messages/lent/documents/papa-francesco_20171101_messaggio-quaresima2018.html

The text of the pope's message in Spanish is online at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/es/messages/lent/documents/papa-francesco_20171101_messaggio-quaresima2018.html

 

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Pope supports pro-life movement, sets day of prayer for peace in Africa

IMAGE: CNS photo/Max Rossi, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With so many direct attacks on human life, from abortion to war, Pope Francis said he is worried that so few people are involved in pro-life activities.

Reciting the Angelus prayer at the Vatican Feb. 4, Pope Francis marked Italy's Pro-Life Sunday and also called for a day of prayer and fasting for peace Feb. 23, with special prayers for Congo and South Sudan.

Some 20,000 people gathered in St. Peter's Square for the Angelus. Many of them carried the pro-life movement's green balloons with the message, "Yes to life."

Thanking all the "different church realities that promote and support life in many ways," Pope Francis said he was surprised there were not more people involved.

"This worries me," the pope said. "There aren't many who fight on behalf of life in a world where, every day, more weapons are made; where, every day, more laws against life are passed; where, every day, this throwaway culture expands, throwing away what isn't useful, what is bothersome" to too many people.

Pope Francis asked for prayers that more people would become aware of the need to defend human life "in this moment of destruction and of throwing away humanity."

With conflict continuing in many parts of the world, the pope said it was time for a special day of prayer and fasting for peace and that it was appropriate for the observance to take place Feb. 23, a Friday in Lent.

"Let us offer it particularly for the populations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and of South Sudan," he said.

Fighting between government troops and rebel forces and between militias continue in Congo, especially in the East, but tensions also have erupted as protests grow against President Joseph Kabila, whose term of office ended in 2016. New elections have yet to be scheduled.

South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war. But, just two years after independence, political tensions erupted into violence.

Pope Francis asked "our non-Catholic and non-Christian brothers and sisters to join this initiative in the way they believe is most opportune."

And he prayed that "our heavenly Father would always listen to his children who cry to him in pain and anguish."

But individuals also must hear those cries, he said, and ask themselves, "'What can I do for peace?' Certainly we can pray, but not only. Each person can say 'no' to violence" in their daily lives and interactions. "Victories obtained with violence are false victories, while working for peace is good for everyone."

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Major flu outbreak prompts dioceses to implement prevention protocols

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The nationwide flu outbreak has prompted dioceses to take steps to suspend traditional rituals to prevent the spread of the virus as much as possible.

From encouraging a simple nod or a smile during the sign of peace to draining holy water fonts, the actions come as the flu sweeps through virtually every corner of the country in the worst outbreak of the disease in nearly a decade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Jan. 26 that most people are being infected with the influenza B, or H3N2, virus. Tens of thousands of people have been hospitalized since Oct. 1, the start of the flu season.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops maintains a page on its website devoted to the liturgy and influenza. It offers information about the flu as well as how to prevent the spread of any disease at liturgy.

The page can be found at http://bit.ly/2nuetHf.

Meanwhile, Bishop Edward C. Malesic of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, advised parishioners not to shake hands during the sign of peace and stopped the use of consecrated wine during Communion.

Across the state in Allentown, the diocese implemented similar restrictions. Diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr told local media the practice occurs most years during the flu season.

In the Diocese of El Paso, Texas, Chancellor Patricia Fierro sent a memo to all parishes asking clergy and others to practice proper hygiene during the flu season. The diocese also asked sick parishioners to refrain from drinking from the cup during holy Communion.

"When you take Communion, you're taking the body and the blood of Christ, so even if you only receive the host and not the precious blood you're still receiving Communion," she said.

A posting on the website of the Diocese of Rochester, New York, outlined four protocols to be observed for the celebration of Mass at all faith communities.

Father Paul J. Tomasso, diocesan vicar general and moderator of the curia, said Jan. 24 that parishes should regularly drain holy water fonts and clean them with disinfecting soap. The old holy water should be disposed of in a sacrarium, or special sink.

Other guidelines include distributing Communion without sharing the chalice; sharing the sign of peace without a handshake; and the cleansing of all vessels used at each Mass with hot water and mild soap.

Similar measures were implemented by Bishop Robert P. Deeley of Portland, Maine, after he reviewed reports about influenza from state health authorities.

The bishop urged parishioners who are sick to stay away from church gatherings and reminded them that they are not obligated to attend weekly Mass when ill. Parishioners also were urged, but not required, to receive Communion in their hand rather than on their tongue. Priests were advised to be careful not to touch the tongues or hands of communicants.

Throughout January, numerous dioceses have outlined similar measures on their websites.

Beyond looking out for the welfare of church members, Catholic agencies are addressing how the flu epidemic is affecting other groups.

The homeless are particularly vulnerable to the flu and organizations who work to protect this population are taking extra efforts to shield them from a potential outbreak, said Augustine Frazier, a senior program manager for the homeless at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

That includes special attention to cleaning the sleeping quarters, air vents and bathroom facilities at homeless shelters run by Catholic Charities, Frazier told Catholic News Service Feb. 1.

Catholic Charities also provides frequent medical clinics for the homeless at their facilities where flu shots are always offered, he said.

In addition to being more exposed to the elements during winter, the homeless frequently have compromised immune systems, often miss taking their medications, don't have adequate warm clothing and often sleep in shelters with hundreds of other people who may be sick, said Dr. Catherine Crosland. She is director of homeless outreach development for Unity Health Care Inc., a Washington-based organization that was providing a medical clinic at Catholic Charities' Adam's Place homeless shelter and day resource center.

Crosland gave the flu shot to dozens of homeless men and women during the Feb. 1 clinic day.

"Especially in the homeless population (it's beneficial) that the more people who get vaccinated the less likely we are to have an outbreak and that is part of something called herd immunity," she said. "It's not necessarily the one by one case, but in a group of 100 people, if half of the folks are vaccinated, you have less likelihood of there being an outbreak."

To date, Dr. Daniel B. Jernigan, director of the Influenza Division in the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at CDC, said the agency had not yet compiled the total number of flu deaths, but he noted that 53 children had died.

Based on statistics compiled from previous influenza outbreaks, the agency expects about 710,000 hospitalizations by the end of flu season in mid-May, according to a transcript from a conversation about the flu epidemic on the CDC website that Jernigan joined.

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Chaz Muth contributed to this story.

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Going for God: Vatican invited to attend Olympic opening ceremony

IMAGE: EPA-EFE

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For the first time, the International Olympic Committee has invited a Vatican delegation not only to take part in the opening ceremony of the Winter Games, but also to attend its general meeting as an official observer.

The delegation was to be led by Msgr. Melchor Sanchez de Toca Alameda, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture and head of its "Culture and Sport" section.

The Vatican delegation was invited to attend the opening ceremony at the Olympic Stadium in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Feb. 9 as well as the Olympic committee's annual session Feb. 5-7 where voting members meet to discuss major issues in the world of sports, reported the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, Feb. 2.

A Vatican delegation attended the opening of the Summer Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, but this was the first time a Vatican delegation was also invited to attend an annual session of the Olympic committee.

Msgr. Sanchez, a former modern pentathlete, told the Vatican newspaper he would present Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, and all Korean Olympic athletes with the official yellow and white jerseys worn by members of the Vatican's running club "Athletica Vaticana," which -- like its other sports teams -- is made up of employees of Vatican City State and the Holy See.

Athletes from both North Korea and South Korea were to walk together during the opening ceremony and were to carry the Korean "Unification Flag" -- a flag designed to represent all of Korea when athletes from the North and South participate as one team in sporting events.

Nearly two dozen North Korean athletes received permission from the IOC to compete in the Winter Games, which take place Feb. 9-25. While athletes will compete for their respective countries, there will be a unified Korean team at the Olympics for the first time as players from both North and South Korea make up a team in women's ice hockey.

 

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Update: Ukrainian Catholic prelates make culinary wager on game's outcome

IMAGE: CNS photos/Jacqueline Dorme, Republican-Herald and Gregory A. Shemitz

By

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- Two Ukrainian Catholic prelates have placed a culinary wager on the outcome of the Feb. 4 Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis.

Archbishop Stefan Soroka of Philadelphia, metropolitan of U.S. Ukrainian Catholics, is rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, in their first Super Bowl appearance since 2005. Bishop Paul P. Chomnycky of Stamford, Connecticut, is rooting for the New England Patriots -- the returning Super Bowl champions and perennial powerhouse.

To show their confidence in their respective home teams, the bishops announced Feb. 1 they have placed a friendly wager on the ultimate outcome of the game. The beneficiaries will be either the chancery staff in Philadelphia or the chancery staff in Stamford.

"If the Eagles do not fly high on Sunday," Archbishop Soroka said, "we will provide a luncheon for the Stamford chancery staff highlighted with Philadelphia cheesesteaks. However, I do not suspect I will have to do so."

While Bishop Chomnycky and his chancery staff are looking forward to the Philly cheesesteak luncheon, the bishop stated that "if the Eagles fly high and the Patriots experience a rare defeat," he will provide the Philadelphia chancery staff with a luncheon "with Boston cream pie as the dessert."

The Ukrainian leaders' wager came a day after one announced by another Eagles fan, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, and another New England Patriots supporter, Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston. The two prelates, who are longtime friends and classmates from their seminary days as young Capuchin Franciscans, are wagering $100 donations to aid the poor in their archdioceses.

The Philly cheesesteak was developed in the early 20th century "by combining frizzled beef, onions and cheese in a small loaf of bread," according to a 1987 exhibition catalog published by the Library Company of Philadelphia and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Philadelphians Pat and Harry Olivieri are often credited with inventing the sandwich by serving chopped steak on an Italian roll in the early 1930s.

According to the owners of the Parker House Hotel in Boston, the Boston cream pie was first created at the hotel by an Armenian-French chef, M. Sanzian, in 1856 and originally called a chocolate cream pie. While other custard cakes may have existed at the time, baking chocolate as a coating was a new process, making it unique and a popular choice on the menu.

The name "Boston cream pie" first appeared in the 1872 Methodist Almanac was declared the official dessert of Massachusetts Dec. 12,1996.

While both bishops are rooting for their respective home teams, they said they see the big game as an American tradition that brings the nation together on Super Bowl Sunday.

"It is amazing how on this one Sunday, people throughout the nation, indeed throughout the world, come together to watch a game played by grown men. Families, neighbors and organizations have parties and socials to enjoy this American classic. It is a unifying event," Archbishop Soroka said.

Bishop Chomnycky commented, "While we all hope for an exciting and competitive football game on Sunday, we also look forward to good sportsmanship and camaraderie among the players and fans both on and off the field. For a few hours, we are able to forget about the many problems throughout the world."

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In chilly Minnesota, archbishop has warm welcome for Super Bowl visitors

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Cath

By Marie Wiering

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Archbishop Bernard J. Hebda may be a Pittsburgh native, but like a true Minnesotan, he began a welcome video for Super Bowl visitors talking about the weather.

"The weather here can get a little chilly this time of year, but as a transplant myself, I can tell you firsthand, the people and hospitality here are warm and inviting," the archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in a 76-second video taped in the Cathedral of St. Paul.

The video was posted Jan. 30 to the archdiocese's website, www.archspm.org. It also can be viewed in the local news section on the site of the archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, thecatholicspirit.com.

Minneapolis will host the 2018 Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium Feb. 4. A million visitors are expected to visit the Twin Cities for the big game.

"My prayer for this special weekend is that all of you -- teams, vendors, families, media and all guests -- have a safe and fun visit," said Archbishop Hebda, who has headed the archdiocese since 2016.

He said he also hoped that the Twin Cities' guests visit one of the archdiocese's "more than 180 Catholic parishes," naming the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, the nation's first basilica, which is located on the west end of Minneapolis a mile-and-a-half from the stadium, and the Cathedral of St. Paul, which overlooks downtown St. Paul.

"You can explore their beauty, have a few quiet moments or attend Mass in one of a dozen languages," he said.

"Again a warm welcome to all of you, from all of us," he said.

The video concluded with welcomes in seven different languages from individuals and groups representing different immigrant communities in the archdiocese.

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Wiering is editor of The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

 

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Dialogue dilemma: Vatican's China overture sparks controversy

IMAGE: CNS photo/Roman Pilipey, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Vatican efforts to honor those who suffer and die for their faith while trying to negotiate with oppressive regimes to expand religious freedom have been fraught with criticism and real pain for more than 50 years.

For example, whether Vatican diplomatic efforts during the Cold War helped ensure the survival of the Catholic Church behind the Iron Curtain or amounted to appeasing evil is still a subject of scholarly debate.

But, unfortunately, the topic is not just a matter of history.

A similar tension is being played out in China, where the Vatican is engaged in dialogue with the communist government in an attempt to move, however slowly, toward a situation in which all the Catholic bishops would be in full communion with Rome and all Catholics would recognize each other as members of the same church.

But some people who have given up their freedom to remain faithful to the pope and some who have observed the resulting suffering see the Vatican's dialogue with the Chinese government as a betrayal.

One of the loudest critics of the Vatican's current engagement with the Chinese government is Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired archbishop of Hong Kong.

In a blog posted on his Facebook page Jan. 29, he asked rhetorically, "Is it not good to try to find mutual ground to bridge the decades-long divide between the Vatican and China?" And then he responded, "But can there be anything really 'mutual' with a totalitarian regime? Either you surrender or you accept persecution, but remaining faithful to yourself."

While Cardinal Zen acknowledged that some Catholics who have cooperated with the government-approved Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association did so "not by their own free will, but under heavy pressure," he also said others are "willing renegades" who, in effect, are in schism.

For decades, the communist government has insisted on naming bishops for Chinese dioceses; for the Catholic Church, that is the prerogative of the pope, since unity with the pope is the guarantee of unity with the church.

But the Vatican's current policy not only involves dialogue with the Chinese government to find agreement on the appointment of bishops and pry open even some tiny space for religious freedom, it also is focused on healing relations among Chinese Catholics.

The importance of uniting Chinese Catholics was explained by now-retired Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 letter to Catholics in China.

The division created by cooperating or refusing to cooperate with the patriotic association, Pope Benedict wrote, "is a situation primarily dependent on factors external to the church, but it has seriously conditioned her progress, giving rise also to suspicions, mutual accusations and recriminations, and it continues to be a weakness in the church that causes concern."

It is in building a "communion of love that the church appears as 'sacrament,' as the 'sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race,'" Pope Benedict wrote. "Avoiding judgments and mutual condemnations" is the only way to promote unity in a situation where individuals, particularly bishops, must decide the extent to which they can cooperate with the government for the good of their communities.

Criticism of the Vatican's Cold War outreach to Soviet-bloc nations was focused on Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, seen as the project's chief architect. A full-time Vatican diplomat for decades, he served as Vatican secretary of state from 1979 to 1990.

In a similar way, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the current secretary of state, is at the center of discussion over the current attempt to dialogue with the Chinese government.

In his Jan. 29 Facebook post, Cardinal Zen seemed to imply that Pope Francis was not fully informed of Cardinal Parolin's activities and approach. The Vatican press office swiftly issued a denial.

Cardinal Parolin himself responded in an interview published Jan. 31 with the Italian newspaper La Stampa and its Vatican Insider website.

"In China, perhaps more than elsewhere, Catholics have been able to preserve, despite many difficulties and sufferings, the authentic deposit of faith, keeping firmly the bond of hierarchical communion between the bishops and the successor of Peter as a visible guarantee of faith itself," the cardinal said. "In fact, communion between the bishop of Rome and all Catholic bishops touches the heart of the church's unity: It is not a private matter between the pope and the Chinese bishops or between the Apostolic See and civil authorities."

But in China, he said, the unity of the church also is threatened by judgments Chinese Catholics make about each other based on the level of their acceptance of government involvement in the life of the community.

Cardinal Parolin said the Vatican wants to overcome the "perennial conflict between opposing principles and structures" by "finding realistic pastoral solutions that allow Catholics to live their faith and to continue together the work of evangelization in the specific Chinese context."

"The hope is that, when God wills it, we won't have to speak of 'legitimate' and 'illegitimate' bishops, 'clandestine' and 'official' bishops in the church in China," he said, but the focus will be on all Chinese Catholics "learning the language of collaboration and communion again."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Trump immigration plan's impact on family 'deeply troubling,' says bishop

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WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The chairman of the U.S. bishops' migration committee said Jan. 30 that the Catholic bishops welcomed the Trump administration's proposal to give "Dreamers" a path to citizenship, but at the same time, they are "deeply troubled" about the plan's "impact on family unity."

On Jan. 26, the White House released a proposal offering a path to citizenship for approximately 1.8 million of the so-called Dreamers and asking for a $25 billion investment in a border wall and other security measures. The plan also calls for an end to the diversity visa program, popularly known as the "visa lottery," and also a program that grants visa preferences to relatives of U.S. citizens or residents.

The administration said its focus for immigration policy is to keep the "nuclear family" intact.

"We welcome the administration's proposal to include a path to citizenship for Dreamers. However, the proposed cuts to family immigration and elimination of protections to unaccompanied children are deeply troubling," said Bishop Joe S. Vasquez of Austin, Texas, who is chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Migration.

He made the comments in a statement released ahead of President Donald Trump's State of the Union speech, to be delivered at 9 p.m. Eastern time. Immigration and border security were among the topics Trump was expected to address in the speech, in addition to the economy, tax reform and the country's infrastructure needs.

"Family immigration is part of the bedrock of our country and of our church," Bishop Vasquez said. "Pope Francis states: 'The family is the foundation of coexistence and a remedy against social fragmentation.' Upholding and protecting the family unit, regardless of its national origins, is vital to our faith."

In September, Trump ended the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and he called on Congress to pass a measure to preserve the program. The DACA recipients are called Dreamers, who are immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children by their parents. Under DACA, they are protected from deportation, but they have to apply to the program and meet certain criteria.

DACA ends March 5, unless Congress passes a bill to keep the almost 6-year-old program in place.

"In searching for a solution for Dreamers, we must not turn our backs on the vulnerable," Bishop Vasquez said in his statement. "We should not, for example, barter the well-being of unaccompanied children for the well-being of the Dreamers. We know them all to be children of God who need our compassion and mercy.

The U.S. bishops "urge a bipartisan solution forward that is narrowly tailored" to keep DACA in place, the bishop said. "Time is of the essence. Every day we experience the human consequences of delayed action in the form of young people losing their livelihood and their hope.

"As pastors and leaders of the church, we see this fear and sadness in our parishes and as such, continue to call for immediate action," Bishop Vasquez added. "Elected officials must show leadership to quickly enact legislation that provides for our security and is humane, proportionate and just."

The Trump administration's proposal to provide a path to citizenship for approximately 1.8 million Dreamers includes those currently covered by the program and more than 1 million who meet the DACA criteria but have not signed up.

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