Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2011 (CNA) - The U.S. Senate blocked President Obama’s appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte as ambassador to El Salvador, citing Aponte’s push for homosexual values in the country.
Aponte has been serving as a temporary ambassador since Sept. 2010 and needed Senate approval to continue her tenure which expires at the end of the year.
However, in a 49-37 vote on Dec. 12, the Senate rejected an attempt to move forward with her nomination.
Aponte, a Hispanic activist and attorney, drew criticism over her June 28 opinion piece this year in La Prensa Grafica, a newspaper in El Salvador.
In her article, “For the Elimination of Prejudices Wherever They Exist,” Aponte said that “each one of us” has a responsibility to work towards the recognition of “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.”
She called for increased efforts to prevent “negative perceptions” of homosexuality and to work towards a celebration of the “diversity of the Americas.”
Several pro-family groups responded by saying that Aponte had violated international law and rules of diplomacy by attempting to impose new values on the country.
According to the Vienna Convention of the U.N. General Assembly, diplomats are obligated to refrain from interfering in the internal affairs of the receiving state.
Multiple Salvadorian groups have written to Congress urging that Aponte be removed for disregarding the country’s culture and morality.
Same-sex unions are not legally recognized in El Salvador, where more than 50 percent of the population is Catholic.
A May 2006 survey published in La Prensa Grafica indicated that 80 percent of Salvadorans are opposed to the recognition of homosexual unions.
In considering Aponte’s nomination, several U.S. Senators also objected to what they deemed to be unanswered questions about her background.
Aponte was first appointed 13 years ago by then-president Bill Clinton, but she withdrew her nomination after rumors surfaced regarding her former live-in boyfriend’s connections to Cuban intelligence under Fidel Castro.
She was later cleared by the FBI and has received top-secret security clearances multiple times.
Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2011 (CNA) - Several dozen members of Congress sent letters to President Barack Obama urging him to raise the issue of religious freedom in Iraq during his Dec. 12 meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
A White House spokesperson told CNA on Dec. 14 that the president has not yet received the letters and declined to comment on whether the religious freedom was discussed in the meetings between Obama and al-Maliki.
Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, warned that the Iraqi government “does not provide effective protection” against the violent attacks and intimidation directed towards religious minorities in the country.
Speaking on behalf of the commission, Leo voiced concerns over religious freedom in Iraq in a Dec. 7 letter to President Obama, arguing that if Iraq is to become “a secure and stable democracy,” it must ensure that the human rights of all Iraqis are respected.
Since 2008, the commission has recommended that Iraq be designated as a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act over its “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Leo noted that Prime Minister al-Maliki has made public statements affirming the rights of religious minorities and criticizing violent acts against them.
Still, he insisted, “concrete action” is needed to turn “rhetoric into reality.”
Leo’s concerns were echoed in a Dec. 9 letter from 37 members of the U.S. House of Representatives to President Obama.
Congressmen Frank Wolf (R-VA), Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Chris Smith (R-N.J.) were among the bipartisan signatories of the letter urging the president “to raise the plight of Iraq’s besieged ethno-religious communities” in his meeting with the prime minister.
Continued violent attacks on religious minorities are too often “not adequately investigated, prosecuted or punished,” the representatives said.
They cited a recent report by the U.S. State Department, which found that the Iraqi Christian population has decreased by at least 50 percent since 2003.
“This is a staggering depletion of a community that dates back thousands of years,” they said.
The congressmen encouraged President to address issues relating to the prosecution of violent acts against religious minorities, increased representation of minorities in government and the protection of vulnerable sites including places of worship. They also emphasized the need for ongoing discussion of a possible administrative region for religious minorities.
Protecting its religious minorities is “critical” to Iraq's alliance with the United States and constitutes “a key component” of future bilateral relations, the legislators said.
President Obama and Prime Minister al-Maliki held a joint press conference on Dec. 12 after their meeting.
The subject of religious freedom was not raised, although President Obama mentioned his hope that Iraq could become a nation in which “different religious sects and ethnicities can resolve their differences peacefully through the democratic process.”
Philadelphia, Pa., Dec 15, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has announced the beginning of an archdiocese-wide initiative for parishes to define their identity, mission and goals and to determine if they have the resources to sustain themselves.
The Parish Pastoral Planning Initiative involves 44 Pastoral Planning Areas, each made up of several parishes in the same geographic vicinity. Each area will create a pastoral plan in a “prayerful and participative process,” the archdiocese said.
Outcomes of each area plan may include no change in structure, or they may include parish mergers.
The first 22 planning areas will begin their work now and are expected to finish over the next three years. The remaining areas will likely require another three years to complete their work.
Msgr. Arthur E. Rodgers, coordinator of Archdiocesan Planning Initiatives and the Archdiocesan Strategic Planning Committee, will oversee the project.
The archdiocese said that no decisions have been made about any of the areas.
According to the archdiocese, the quality of parish life has been “seriously impacted” by demographic shifts, a decline in weekly Mass attendance, a high density of parishes in a relatively small geographic area, the availability of clergy, “serious” financial challenges and underused parish facilities.
In 2010, Cardinal Justin Rigali issued a pastoral letter outlining the need to examine all the archdiocese’s 266 parishes to determine if they have the resources to fulfill their role.
In a Dec. 8, 2012 pastoral letter, the cardinal’s successor Archbishop Charles J. Chaput described “very serious” financial and organizational issues in the archdiocese. He warned that some, and perhaps many, archdiocesan schools may be forced to close or combine.
Washington D.C., Dec 15, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Archbishop Robert J. Carlson, the head of the U.S. bishops’ committee on vocations, believes Catholics should be encouraged by great signs of hope for the future of the priesthood in America.
Archbishop Carlson told CNA on Dec. 12 that although there is a “great need for more seminarians” in the United States, several recent “positive trends” in seminary enrollment should “give us hope as a people of faith.”
The archbishop said that Apostolic Visitations in 2005 revealed that the vast majority of diocesan seminaries throughout the country are “healthy houses of discernment and formation,” filled with seminarians of a “very high caliber,” who bring with them “a variety of backgrounds, experience and talents.”
He pointed to recent statistics from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, which indicate a “steady increase in the number of theologians studying for the priesthood” over the last eight years.
These men, said the archbishop, often have college degrees and work experience and “have left successful jobs and comfortable homes to pursue the call to the priesthood.”
He also sees “a very high level of perseverance to priesthood in the men who are enrolled in major seminaries nationwide.”
Dr. Mary Gautier, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, said she expects recent the declines of recent decades to remain stable in the coming years. Gautier noted that priestly ordinations have risen slightly in the last decade, and numbers of men in the final stages of seminary have remained “very stable” for the past 15 years.
As for women religious, Gautier expects to see numbers decrease in the near future, continuing a decline that has been taking place for several decades.
She explained that a huge “bubble” was created several generations ago when large numbers of women entered religious life. As these women are reaching the end of their lives, they are not being replaced by an equal number of new women.
This coming Jan. 9-14, the Catholic Church in the U.S. will celebrate National Vocation Awareness Week, which is intended to encourage prayer, education and support for those considering a religious vocation.
Archbishop Carlson stressed the importance of fostering a “culture of vocations” that will allow young people to discern in a supportive environment at home, school and church.
However, as we continue to pray for the priests of tomorrow, he said, “we can certainly rejoice in the positive trends that are occurring in our seminaries today.”
The official 2011 statistics for the United States report that there are 3,394 diocesan seminarians and 1,853 religious seminarians. The number of novices for women’s religious orders was not given.
Vatican City, Dec 15, 2011 (CNA) - Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino of Havana voiced anticipation over Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit to Cuba in March of 2012.
“The Pope’s visit is always a special grace like John Paul II’s was. I am sure Benedict XVI’s visit will be also,” he told CNA after a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican on Dec. 12.
During the Mass in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Pope Benedict announced his intention to visit Cuba and Mexico before Easter of 2012. He said he would travel to both countries “to proclaim the Word of Christ there and to and convince people that this is the time to evangelize with strong faith, living hope and burning charity.”
Pope Benedict will be the second pontiff to visit Cuba after the historic visit by Blessed Pope John Paul II in 1998.
The Pope will arrive in Cuba during improving relations between the Castro government and the Church through the mediation of the Spanish government. More than 100 political prisoners were released in 2010 and 2011 and allowed to travel to Spain.
Relations are also improved thanks to a visit in June of 2010 by the Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Dominique Mamberti.
While the process for releasing the political prisoners was met with some criticism by Cuban dissidents, many analysts consider the move to be a positive signal.
“I am very happy that the Pope is coming to Cuba, and we are waiting for him,” Cardinal Ortega told CNA. Vatican sources say the Pope will tentatively travel to Cuba March 26-28 and then return to Rome.
Vatican City, Dec 15, 2011 (CNA) - Although he is the only person in the world to have the job of preaching to the Pope, Father Raniero Cantalamessa sees his work as simply delivering the message of the Gospel.
“It is actually a very simple ministry because the Pope at that moment is just a listener among other listeners,” the Italian Capuchin Franciscan priest told CNA.
“In fact, it’s really the Pope who gives the sermon to the rest of the Church by listening to the meditation of a very simple priest of the Catholic Church.”
Fr. Cantalamessa, 77, has been the official preacher to the Papal Household since 1980. His job consists of giving a meditation every Friday of Lent and Advent to the senior members of the Roman Curia, which includes the Pope.
All told, Fr. Cantalamessa has been preaching to Pope Benedict – who was previously Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – for 31 years.
“He was always in the first row. And preaching while the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is right in front of you is quite challenging, I assure you,” he said.
Fr. Cantalamessa said that the weight of preaching for the Pope is lightened by the fact that he knows he is “not supposed to give my philosophical system, but the message of the Gospel.”
As each liturgical season for preaching approaches, Fr. Cantalamessa selects a theme for his sermons.
This Advent he is focusing on the four different historical stages of Christian evangelization. He sees the first phase as occurring in the earliest centuries of the Church, the second when the Roman Empire fell, and the third coinciding with the discovery of the New World. The fourth stage is “the present one, where the target is more the secularized Western world than the usual mission countries.”
“In the past, the role for evangelization was more entrusted to bishops, pastors, monks, religious people,” he explained. Since the Second Vatican Council, “the laity have taken their role as part of the evangelization.”
“They really do the new evangelization in the field, going into the streets and preaching to people on a person-to-person basis,” Fr. Cantalamessa said, likening the situation to the early Church when there “were no specialized official missionaries” and “every Christian was a missionary.”
While lay people “usually cannot do what I do – preach to crowds, to clergy,” they can meet people in everyday life “whom we cannot reach and invite them and transmit to them with gentleness our reasons for hope,” the papal preacher said.
As part of his Advent reflections this year, he plans to remind the Papal Household that “lay people were the only people present at the birth of Jesus,” such as the shepherds and wise men.
“So this was symbolic that the first who came and spread the news about the birth of Jesus were lay people.”
Fr. Cantalamessa likes to conclude his Advent sermons by directing people “toward Christmas, mentioning sometimes the role of Mary,” whom he describes as “the star of evangelization.”
The “miracle of Christmas,” he reflected, “is that in Jesus, God achieves great goals through very small means – a baby,” contrary to the expectation and demands of humanity.
“Only faith in Jesus can change every defeat into a victory. I am fully convinced of that.”
Vatican City, Dec 15, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Pope Benedict XVI will no longer give a speech to new foreign ambassadors to the Holy See as has been is custom up until now, but he will continue to meet them personally when they are appointed.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., explained the changes to the media Dec. 15. He said the move was being made for “reasons of simplicity and consistency with current diplomatic practice,” and that it should not be seen as a reflection of the 84-year-old Pope’s health.
It is diplomatic protocol for new ambassadors to submit a formal “letter of credence” to the head of state asking for diplomatic accreditation. It is at these ceremonies that speeches are sometimes exchanged.
Fr. Lombardi explained that the practice of the Pope addressing new ambassadors is a recent innovation that “did not exist as such, apart from a few exceptional occasions, such as during Second World War,” until the pontificate of Pope Paul VI 1965-78.
Prior to Pope Paul VI, said Fr. Lombardi, these speeches “were written texts that were exchanged and then published, but were not actually pronounced.” This is still the custom in many countries, he said, describing the Vatican practice as “a peculiarity of the Holy See in recent years.”
He also observed that under Pope Paul VI there were “about 90” ambassadors accredited to the Holy See, whereas “today there are about 180, almost twice that.”
What is essential, he said, is for the new ambassador to meet the Pope in person and present his letters of credence, so that the two are known to each other.
Papal speeches to ambassadors often give the pontiff an opportunity to address the people of a particular nation. Fr. Lombardi said that will still be done in the future “with specific messages for certain occasions or in circumstances of particular importance,” such as national holidays or major anniversaries.
In fact, Pope Benedict met with 11 new non-resident ambassadors to the Holy See today. He addressed them collectively, which Fr. Lombardi said would be less likely to happen if they were maintaining a mission in Rome. For resident ambassadors, the Pope would most likely meet with them one-on-one, the Vatican spokesman explained.
In his remarks to the new diplomats, the Pope stressed the need for international solidarity.
“We are all responsible for one another,” he told the group gathered in the Apostolic Palace, “therefore it is important to maintain a positive vision of solidarity because it is the driving force of integral human development.” This solidarity, he said, was also “inter-generational,” having its roots in the family.
Today’s changes to ambassadorial audiences with the Pope come at the end of a year in which Pope Benedict also replaced one-on-one meetings with individual bishops on “ad limina” visits to Rome with more prolonged group discussions.
Dublin, Ireland, Dec 15, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Irish government signaled on Wednesday that it would accept a visit next June by Pope Benedict for the Dublin International Eucharistic Congress, giving encouragement to organizers who had feared hopes of a papal visit had all but gone.
Irish Foreign Minister Eamon Gilmore told an Irish parliamentary committee Dec. 14 that “(i)n order to remove any misunderstandings, I would like to make it clear that should the government be informed by the Holy See that Pope Benedict wishes to visit Ireland at a time of mutual convenience – for instance at the occasion of next year’s Eucharistic Congress – I have no doubt that the government will respond positively.”
In October, when asked a similar question, Gilmore told the parliament that “an invitation has not issued nor is one currently under active consideration.”
The organizers of the Eucharist Congress saw his statement as a rebuff to the idea of a papal visit. A month later, Gilmore also closed the Irish embassy to the Holy See in Rome, after 82 years in existence.
Gilmore asserted on Dec. 14 that the decision to close the Vatican embassy was purely a financial one based on “diminishing resources” for his department.
He also sought to clear up any “misunderstandings” about his government’s attitude toward a possible visit by the Pope, explaining that “according to normal diplomatic practice, invitations to heads of state to visit another country are neither sought nor issued in public.”
Instead, he said that “a formal invitation is issued only after notification that the head of state wishes to visit and dates have been agreed.”
The 50th International Eucharistic Congress will take place in Dublin from the June 10 to 17, 2012. Held every four years, the congress brings together Catholics from across the globe to pray and study the meaning of the Eucharist.
The Dublin event is expected to attract about 25,000 visitors per day, with 80,000 attending the final Mass at the city’s Croke Park Stadium. The organizers have issued an invitation to Pope Benedict and are still waiting for a response from the Vatican.
“The primary focus of the Congress is people’s encounter with Jesus Christ, but if the Pope also came that would be a real bonus. So I obviously welcome Mr. Gilmore’s comments,” congress organizer Fr. Kevin Doran told CNA Dec. 15.
Fr. Doran said that over the past six months he has received nothing both “generous support” from Ireland’s diplomatic staff across the world as he has worked to organize the congress.
In contrast, relations between the Dublin and Rome have been strained since Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny launched a blistering attack on the Catholic Church in July.
He accused the Vatican of attempting to “frustrate an inquiry” into clerical abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne, County Cork. The Vatican rejected his accusation and a spokesperson for the Prime Minister later stated that he was not referring to any specific incident. However, Kenny has refused to withdraw his remarks or apologize for them.