Hattiesburg, Miss., Jun 4, 2011 (CNA) - At the very same moment Benny Joe Stevens was being put to death via lethal injection for the 1998 murder of four people, including two children, a group of people gathered on the steps of Sacred Heart Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., praying for an end to the death penalty.
Sacred Heart Parish’s Social Justice Committee sponsored the gathering, which consisted of prayer, music and a variety of readings, ranging from quotations by such notable figures as Pope John Paul II and Coretta Scott King to a statement on capital punishment from the U.S. Catholic Bishops.
“We are showing our opposition to the death penalty in Mississippi and we’re doing that in a very prayerful way,” said B.J. Sanford, who organized the event.
Not only are we showing our opposition to the death penalty, but we’re also praying for all victims of crime, specifically the victims of the crimes committed by Benny Joe Stevens, Rodney Gray and Robert Simon, the families of the victims and the families of the men being put to death.”
Gray was scheduled to be executed on May 17. Simon was scheduled to be executed on May 24, however an appeals court granted an indefinite stay of his execution.
In no way, do Sanford and those who turned out for the vigil condone what the three men did. “We want justice done,” said Sanford. “But we do not feel that justice is done by using the death penalty. Life without parole is an option in Mississippi and that’s what we’re advocating. We don’t want these men out of prison. We’re not saying that they weren’t lawfully tried and convicted. We’re saying give them life without parole.”
Sacred Heart’s Social Justice has sponsored similar vigils since 2008.
Rev. Dick Allison, retired pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg has attended each of the vigils.
“I have a friend on death row who will be facing this unless something changes,” said Rev. Allison.
“I was vocal in my opposition to the death penalty long before that. I personally believe that is not the way to handle the people who commit these crimes. I have probably spent as much of my ministry ministering to families of victims as I have to the killers and I don’t think killing the killers makes sense. I don’t think the state, in our name, should be taking lives. There are plenty of ways to safeguard the public. I know plenty of people who are the family of victims who say that (killing the killer) will never bring any kind of peace or closure.”
Printed with permission from Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi.
Port au Prince, Haiti, Jun 4, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The situation of earthquake victims in Haiti continues to improve, but cholera is still a problem and the upcoming hurricane season poses a “major threat.”
“Historically, we know that Haiti is disproportionately vulnerable to hurricanes and that even tropical storms or just heavy rain can cause serious damage – in areas unaffected by the earthquake as well as in the camps, which are acutely vulnerable,” Jean Daniel Lafontant, Catholic Relief Services’ Haiti communications officer, told CNA on June 3.
In late April, unexpected heavy rains and strong winds flooded parts of metropolitan Port-au-Prince, damaging or destroying more than 1,550 emergency shelters and tents.
During the hurricane season those living in camps are also at greater risk of cholera, which is mainly spread through water.
While cholera is increasing in some departments of Haiti, the overall caseload continues to “decrease or stabilize.” At the end of March, hospitalizations for the illness stabilized at about 2,000 per week. As of April 19, 280 cholera treatment facilities and 760 oral rehydration points were working throughout the 10 departments of Haiti.
“The relief effort continues to gain momentum,” Lafontant said. “The number of people living in tent camps has decreased.”
Relief agencies are helping families resettle into their communities by providing transitional shelters, water and sanitation services, and business assistance.
CRS has been preparing for hurricanes since the first weeks of the earthquake. It has assessed at-risk camps and neighborhoods, dug drainage channels, sandbagged hills and moved the most vulnerable populations to more secure areas.
The agency has started to stockpile emergency supplies and has created an emergency response team of 45 experts.
The “relative tranquility” following the national elections helped CRS teams make good progress in providing transitional shelters for hundreds of Haitians, many of whom have been living in tents since the earthquake. The agency completed 806 transitional shelters in April alone, while also starting on the demolition of uninhabitable homes in Port-au-Prince neighborhoods.
Meanwhie, Mayor Wilson Jeudy of Delmas city in the Port-au-Prince area has begun clearing out some of the camps on the grounds that they have become staging areas for crime.
The January 2010 earthquake left about 1.5 million people homeless. While the Haitian government put the number of dead at 316,000, an unreleased draft report from the U.S. Agency for International Development puts the death toll at between 46,000 and 85,000, the Associated Press reports. The study says no more than 375,000 people are still living on the streets, though other estimates range as high as 680,000.
However, the State Department said the report has “inconsistencies” and was not ready for release.
Lafontant said that there are 12 Caritas member organizations working in Haiti, including CRS and Caritas Haiti. Eight organizations have their own staff and operations.
“There is a strong history and presence of the Catholic Church in Haiti,” he explained. The Church has been a “mainstay” in sponsoring education and up to half of Haitian primary school children attend Catholic schools.
The Church also operates numerous hospitals and health centers.
“Catholic Relief Services supports the Haitian Church structure in many of the health, education and justice initiatives,” he said. “Please keep the people of Haiti in your prayers.”
The agency has a special website discussing its work in Haiti and how to support it at http://hopeforhaiti.crs.org.
San Antonio, Texas, Jun 4, 2011 (CNA) - Texas' Attorney General has asked an appellate court to overturn a federal judge's decision banning prayer at a public school graduation. The school's valedictorian has also taken legal action against the decision, saying she has the right to speak to God during her remarks.
“Just as the U.S. Supreme Court has held that Congress can convene each day with a prayer, Medina Valley High School students have a constitutionally protected right to pray during their graduation speeches,” Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said on June 2, summing up the amicus brief he filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
The Medina Valley School District is appealing against U.S. District Judge Fred Biery's May 26 decision, which held that an agnostic student and his family would suffer “irreparable harm” if students and other speakers were allowed to pray, or ask the audience to join them in prayer during the ceremony.
Judge Biery's injunction stated that both students and officials of the school district would be “prohibited from allowing a prayer to be included in the June 4, 2011 graduation ceremony for Medina Valley High School.” He cited the U.S. Constitution's ban on a congressional “establishment of religion” as the basis for his injunction.
However, the same amendment that prohibits the establishment of a state religion also guarantees citizens the “free exercise of religion.”
Attorney General Abbott told the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the district court's order “creates, rather than alleviates, constitutional violations.”
“In its efforts to remedy a non-existent constitutional violation, the district court ordered Medina Valley to abridge the free speech and free exercise rights of its graduation speakers,” Abbott argued.
He noted that Judge Biery's order also “threatened Medina Valley officials with incarceration and other sanctions if they fail to commit these First Amendment violations.”
The Texas attorney general argued that Judge Biery's order took no account of “Medina Valley’s obligations to respect the First Amendment rights of the student speakers” to exercise their faith.
While the order did not ban student speakers from mentioning their religion, it did insist that they would not be allowed to “present a prayer” or “deliver a message that would commonly be understood to be a prayer.”
Student speakers also “may not ask audience members to ‘stand,’ ‘join in prayer,’ or ‘bow their heads,’” and “may not end their remarks with ‘amen’ or ‘in (a deity’s name) we pray.”
This court order, Abbott said, meant that Medina Valley officials were “currently faced with the choice to either obey the district court’s order and violate the First Amendment rights of the student speakers, or permit the students to freely speak and risk incarceration and other contempt sanctions.”
The Texas attorney general told the appellate court that emergency relief against the injunction “is not just warranted, it is required.”
The Texas-based Liberty Institute is also working to oppose the ban on prayer at the June 4 graduation. A team of lawyers from the institute filed a motion in the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on June 2, on behalf of Medina Valley High School's 2011 valedictorian Angela Hildenbrand.
Hildenbrand was planning to include a prayer to God as part of her address to the students, family members and friends. Under Judge Biery's court order, she would be able to address the crowd on the subject of her religious faith but would be barred from addressing God directly through prayer.
Her attorneys maintain that by “banning some religious words while allowing others,” the district court would force the school district to “engage in unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination” against a citizen.
Their motion asks for Judge Biery's order to be stayed, modified, or dissolved, so that Hildenbrand would be “permitted to pray and speak the words 'Lord,' 'in the name of Jesus,' and 'Amen.'”
Aboard the papal plane, Jun 4, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict XVI has given his backing to Croatia’s bid to join the European Union but says he understands a fear of an “overly strong centralized bureaucracy.”
“I think it is logical, just and necessary that it (Croatia) enters,” he told journalists on the plane from Rome to the Croatian capital Zagreb on June 4 to begin a two-day visit.
The Pope said he likes to refer to Croatia as “central Europe” rather than “the Balkans” because it reminds everybody that “Croatia is a nation at the heart of Europe, its history and its culture.” This is a point he reiterated upon his arrival to Zagreb Airport.
“From its earliest days, your nation has formed part of Europe, and has contributed, in its unique way, to the spiritual and moral values that for centuries have shaped the daily lives and the personal and national identity of Europe’s sons and daughters.”
Croatia declared independence from the rest of Yugoslavia in 1991. It applied to join the European Union in 2003 and is likely to join this year. The E.U. is a political and economic union now consisting of 27 states. Croatia’s entry hasn’t been without opposition though, with many Croats fearing a loss of independence while many others worry about an attack upon their Christian values. Croatia is 89 percent Catholic.
“One can understand there is perhaps a fear of an overly strong centralized bureaucracy and a rationalistic culture that doesn't sufficiently take into account the history - the richness of history and the richness of the diverse history that Croatia offers,” the Pope remarked aboard the plane.
But he also hoped that the entry of the Croatia into the E.U. would help reverse the tide of secularism washing across the continent.
“It seems to me that this aspect could be the very mission of this nation that joins now: to renew a unity within diversity. The European identity is an identity, precisely because of the richness of the different cultures which converge in the Christian faith and in the great Christian values,” a point Pope Benedict also emphasized upon touchdown in Croatia.
The Pope said that reinvigorating Europe’s Christian identity requires a “convinced witness and active dynamism aimed at promoting the fundamental moral values that underpin social living and the identity of the old continent.”
Pope Benedict was welcomed to the Zagreb airport by crowds waving Croat and Vatican flags. In his official welcoming address, the country’s president, Ivo Josipovic, told the Pope that “Your arrival comes at a happy time,” with Croatia celebrating the 12th anniversary of its independence.
The Pope is visiting the country to celebrate the Croatian Catholic Church’s annual family day, which will take place on June 5. Over 300,000 are expected to attend the Mass at a local Zagreb racetrack. The visit will last only two days and will conclude tomorrow.
Aboard the papal plane, Jun 4, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Pope has hailed Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, the late Cardinal Archbishop of Zagreb in Croatia, as “a great pastor and a great Christian.” The Pope made his comments during an in-flight interview with journalists as he traveled to Croatia for a two-day visit.
Cardinal Stepinac was the leader of the Catholic Church in Croatia during the Second World War when the country briefly regained independence under a Nazi puppet regime, the Ustase.
After the war, the Nazis were replaced with the communists. An outspoken critic of the regime, Cardinal Stepinac was imprisoned following a show-trial in 1946 and later died under house arrest in 1952.
Pope Benedict described both regimes – Nazi and communist – as “anti-humanist.”
The Ustase regime, he said, “seemed to fulfill the dream of autonomy and independence, but in reality it was an autonomy that was a lie because it was exploited by Hitler for his own purposes.”
The Pope said that in the midst of this turmoil, Cardinal Stepinac was a courageous defender of those oppressed by the Ustase, including Serbs, Jews and gypsies.
Cardinal Stepinac stood up against “the dictatorship of communism, where he again fought for the faith, for the presence of God in the world, the true humanity that is dependent on the presence of God,” the Pope concluded, calling the Croatian cardinal “a great example not only for the Croats, but all of us.”
Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac was declared a martyr and beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1998.
When Pope Benedict arrived at the Zagreb Airport, he urged all Croats to pray to Blessed Aloysius Stepinac.
“In view of the challenges confronting the Church and civil society today, I invoke upon this land and all its inhabitants the intercession and assistance of Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, the beloved and venerable Shepherd of your people.”
“May he accompany the young generations as they strive to live by that charity which prompted the Lord Jesus Christ to give his life for all people.”
Zagreb, Croatia, Jun 4, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Europe is doomed if it doesn’t rediscover the true meaning of conscience, warned Pope Benedict XVI on the first day of his visit to Croatia.
“If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy and Europe is destined to collapse in on itself,” the Pope told a gathering of members from Croatia’s civil society in the capital of Zagreb on June 4.
“If, on the other hand, conscience is rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings – in other words, the bulwark against all forms of tyranny – then there is hope for the future.”
Several hundred key figures from the world of Croatian politics, academia, culture, arts and sport gathered at the country’s national theatre to hear the Pope. His speech echoed his prior warnings against the “dictatorship of relativism.”
He told the assembled dignitaries that many of the “great achievements of the modern age” such as “the recognition and guarantee of freedom of conscience, of human rights, of the freedom of science and hence of a free society” would be undone unless “reason and freedom” were kept rooted in “their transcendent foundation” of God.
To make his point, the Pope drew upon the life and work of Father Ruder Josip Boskovic, an early 18th century Croatian Jesuit, who was a great theologian, physicist, astronomer, mathematician, philosopher and poet.
Boskovic, said the Pope, was a clear example of “the happy symbiosis of faith and scholarship” in which “there is study of multiple branches of knowledge, but there is also a passion for unity,” and where learning is both “diversified and capable of synthesis.”
This forming of consciences rooted in faith and reason is where “the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society,” said the Pope, stressing that this formation should begin in the home, the parish and the school.
In this way children “learn what it means for a community to be built upon gift, not upon economic interests or ideology, but upon love,” and so society is transformed for the better.
Pope Benedict explained that the impact of living in this selfless way, when “learnt in infancy and adolescence, is then lived out in every area of life, in games, in sport, in interpersonal relations, in art, in voluntary service to the poor and the suffering.”
And once this way of life has taken root, "it can be applied to the most complex areas of political and economic life so as to build up a polis that is welcoming and hospitable, but at the same time not empty, not falsely neutral, but rich in humanity, with a strongly ethical dimension.”
The Pope is visiting Croatia to celebrate the local church’s annual family day on June 5. Over 300,000 are expected to attend the Mass at a local Zagreb racetrack. The visit will last only two days, concluding tomorrow.
Zagreb, Croatia, Jun 4, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - “If you are rooted in Christ, you will fully become the person you are meant to be,” the Pope told over 50,000 youngsters at a prayer vigil in Zagreb’s Ban Josip Jalacic Square.
Pope Benedict also challenged the young people. “The Lord Jesus is not a Teacher who deceives his disciples: he tells us clearly that walking by his side calls for commitment and personal sacrifice, but it is worth the effort!”
The Pope was greeted in rock star like fashion by crowds waving both Croatian and Vatican flags. Very noticeable among the crowd were scores of young priests and nuns.
Although the event often had the feel of a rally, it was also interspersed with periods of silent prayer. It included personal testimonies, Scripture readings and a musical accompaniment which ranged from the traditional Croat to contemporary hymns.
“This time of youth is given to you by the Lord to enable you to discover life’s meaning!” said the Pope as he asked the young people the same question that Jesus Christ asked the youngest of his apostles, John, when he first met him: “What are you looking for?”
“Young friends, these words, this question reaches beyond time and space ... Jesus speaks to you today, through the Gospel and his Holy Spirit. He is your contemporary! He seeks you even before you seek him!”
The Pope said that while Jesus Christ was fully respects their freedom, he offers himself to young people as “the authentic and decisive response” to “the longing deep within your hearts, to your desire for a life worth living.”
“Let him take you by the hand! Let him become more and more your friend and companion along life’s journey. Put your trust in him and he will never disappoint you!” he urged.
The Pope told them that this was the only way to find true happiness “even amid difficulties, trials and disappointments” and “even when it means swimming against the tide.”
He concluded by holding up the example of Blessed Ivan Merz, an early 20th century Bosnian-Croat layman and academic. Merz was the creator of Christian movement for young people called “The Croatian Union of Eagles.” He died in 1928, aged only 32, but had lived a life of such heroic sanctity that he was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003. “This young life, completely given over to love, bears the fragrance of Christ,” said Pope Benedict.
The Pope then accepted enthusiastic cheers of “Benedikt! Benedikt! Benedikt!” from the youthful crowd for a few moments before imparting his apostolic blessing and departing for the evening. Tomorrow morning he’ll celebrate Mass for more than 300,000 pilgrims at Croatia’s National Family Day in Zagreb. The Pope’s visit will conclude tomorrow evening.
To read Pope Benedict's full message, click here.