Denver, Colo., Dec 18, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Just after Christmas, the Catholic Church remembers its first martyr, and one of its first deacons, Saint Stephen. Roman Catholics celebrate his feast Dec. 26, while Eastern Catholics honor him one day later.
In the Acts of the Apostles, St. Luke praises St. Stephen as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” during the earliest days of the Church.
Luke's history of the period also includes the moving scene of Stephen's death – witnessed by St. Paul before his conversion – at the hands of those who refused to accept Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.
Stephen himself was a Jew who most likely came to believe in Jesus during the Lord's ministry on earth. He may have been among the 70 disciples whom Christ sent out as missionaries, who preached the coming of God's kingdom while traveling with almost no possessions.
This spirit of detachment from material things continued in the early Church, in which St. Luke says believers “had all things in common” and “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
But such radical charity ran up against the cultural conflict between Jews and Gentiles, when a group of Greek widows felt neglected in their needs as compared to those of a Jewish background.
Stephen's reputation for holiness led the Apostles to choose him, along with six other men, to assist them in an official and unique way as this dispute arose. Through the sacramental power given to them by Christ, the Apostles ordained the seven men as deacons, and set them to work helping the widows.
As a deacon, Stephen also preached about Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament law and prophets. Unable to refute his message, some members of local synagogues brought him before their religious authorities, charging him with seeking to destroy their traditions.
Stephen responded with a discourse recorded in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He described Israel's resistance to God's grace in the past, and accused the present religious authorities of “opposing the Holy Spirit” and rejecting the Messiah.
Before he was put to death, Stephen had a vision of Christ in glory. “Look,” he told the court, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
The council, however, dragged the deacon away and stoned him to death.
“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,’” records St. Luke in Acts 7. “Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.”
The first Christian martyrdom was overseen by a Pharisee named Saul – later Paul, and still later St. Paul – whose own experience of Christ would transform him into a believer, and later a martyr himself.
Oklahoma City, Okla., Dec 18, 2011 (CNA) - Catholic Charities is making transitional care available at the Holy Family Maternity Home in Oklahoma City for teens in crisis pregnancies.
“The goal of this new service is to help the family and the teenage girl who is experiencing an unplanned pregnancy as they work to create a ‘new normal’ in their lives,” said Monica Palmer, associate director for Clinical Services.
“Families often need time and help to adjust.”
As part of the Transitional Care program, Holy Family Home offers short-term residential services in a safe and supportive environment. Each girl enrolled in the program will have a private room with caring staff on duty 24 hours a day, as well as case management to assist in making an educational and a medical plan.
Additionally, Holy Family Maternity Home provides age-appropriate recreational activities including field trips, art and musical events.
“The residents and families will be able to decide on the length of the stay based on their needs,” said Mary Jane Webster, Holy Family Maternity Home director. “If needed, the girl can stay through the birth of her baby and complete the school semester.”
To further help ease the transition, counseling is available through Holy Family Maternity Home to assist both the young mother and her family in the decision of whether to parent or place the child for adoption.
If she chooses to parent, the resident will be given training in parenting and other life skills. Also, as a part of the case management service, families will be given information regarding other community services available.
Staffed by caring professionals, Holy Family Maternity Home is a full service home for young women in crisis pregnancies from throughout Oklahoma. All services at the Holy Family Home are provided at no cost to the young mother or family.
For more information, visit www.catholiccharities.com.
Printed with permission from Sooner Catholic, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
Albany, N.Y., Dec 18, 2011 (CNA) -
New York's Catholic Conference has criticized the fairness of a bill allowing sex abuse accusers to sue for damages on claims stretching back half a century or more.
“What we object to in the bill is not the extension of statutes of limitations going forward,” said Communications Director Dennis Poust, explaining the problems with Assemblywoman Margaret Markey's proposal to change how the law handles abuse claims.
“Our main objection is to the so-called 'window' portion of the bill, which would open up an opportunity to bring lawsuits for claims that were previously time-barred, where the statute of limitations has run out long ago,” Poust told CNA on Dec. 16.
“Someone could come forward and say they were abused by a priest, or Boy Scout counselor, in 1960. That priest or counselor is long-dead, and there's no record of any abuse. But the person could claim abuse and bring a lawsuit, under that bill. We think that's fundamentally unjust.”
Markey's February 2011 bill is drawing renewed attention due to the sex abuse scandals in the Syracuse and Penn State college sports programs.
Along with its one-year “window” for claims to be filed stretching back indefinitely in the past, it would also extend the statute of limitations in child sex abuse prosecutions, and the corresponding time limit on civil lawsuits.
The New York Catholic Conference, which represents the state's bishops, maintains that the indefinite retroactive lawsuit window – reviving, for one year, any claim previously considered too old to act on – should not be applied to any institution, religious or otherwise.
But it would support the changes in how newer cases are handled, if they applied equally to public and private institutions.
At present, New York state law imposes a five-year statute of limitations for civil claims, and many criminal prosecutions, involving child sex abuse. The time period begins either when the alleged victim turns 18, or when authorities receive a report of the incident, depending on which occurs first.
If Markey's bill passes, many lawsuits and prosecutions could be initiated up to five years later than that, a standard Poust says is fair in itself.
But a different, much more limited rule would still apply to lawsuits against public institutions.
“The state gives itself a bit of a 'pass,' and makes it tougher to sue itself. In New York, within 90 days of the offense you have to file something called a 'notice of claims' with the court, saying you intend to sue.”
“If you don't file that in a timely manner – within three months – then you can never bring a lawsuit against a state institution.”
A previous version of Markey's bill would have changed this, extending the time period for child sex abuse allegations to be brought against both public and private institutions. The present version, however, does not do so.
“The current bill would not impact public institutions, like public schools or juvenile justice facilities,” Poust pointed out. “It creates two classes of victims, depending on where the abuse occurred. That's just not good public policy.”
“Most non-familial abuse occurs in public schools, yet this bill by Assemblywoman Markey does nothing to help those victims,” he said.
“For her to say that this somehow addresses what happened at Penn State is a fallacy,” Poust pointed out. “That's a public institution. If Penn State were in New York, her bill would have no impact on it.”
This double standard was not always Markey's intention, Poust recalled.
“Back in 2009, she did amend the bill to include public institutions,” Poust recalled. “That's the way the language of the bill read through 2010. And she has now explicitly gone back to the original bill, which excludes 'publics.'”
Poust said Markey made the reversal after pressure from public sector groups.
“The state association of school superintendents, the school board association, the conference of mayors, the association of counties – all these public associations came out against the bill, and it became toxic. It didn't have a chance.”
“She has no credibility to say that this bill is in any way fair. She acknowledged in 2009 that by including the public sector it was a better bill. And now, without explanation, she has gone back to the old bill.”
But even if Markey changed this portion of her bill, the New York Catholic Conference would maintain its objection to the one-year suspension of the statute of limitations.
When California passed a similar bill in 2002, the Church paid out nearly a billion dollars in settlements.
In part, Poust observed, this is because “it's impossible for an institution to defend itself” against claims stretching back half a century or more.
“That's the reason statutes of limitations exist – because defense becomes impossible when evidence is lost or old and any witnesses, or the alleged abusers, may be long-dead. It leads to having to go into settlements for things that may or may not be true.”
“In California, one case went back 70 years,” he recalled. “It doesn't have to be a claim that was previously reported or known in any way, shape or form.”
“It really is an invitation for individuals to make false claims. We know the identities, at this point, of many individuals who were sex abusers. So all you have to do is say, 'Oh, he abused me too, 60 years ago.'”
The reality of past abuse, Poust said, does not eliminate the legal presumption of innocence – which loses its effectiveness against a flood of lawsuits potentially involving the distant past.
“Justice works two ways,” the Catholic conference spokesman observed. “Individuals and institutions have to have a right to defend themselves. The question is, at what point does it become impossible to defend against a claim like that?”
“It really is impossible to defend against 60-year-old claims. It's the equivalent of someone knocking on your door and saying, 'In 1962 I slipped and fell outside your house – which at the time was owned by your grandfather – and now I'm going to sue you for damages.'”
“Statutes of limitations exist everywhere, in civil and criminal law – because of the common understanding that evidence gets stale or lost, and memories fade,” Poust said.
“You have to strike a balance between giving justice to the accuser, but also to the accused.”
Vatican City, Dec 18, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict XVI said today that the virginity of Mary guarantees Jesus’ divinity because it proves the Incarnation is solely the work of God.
“The human being that begins to live in her womb takes the flesh from Mary, but his existence is derived entirely from God,” the Pope said Dec. 18 in his final Sunday Angelus address before Christmas.
“The fact that Mary conceived while remaining a virgin is, therefore, essential to the understanding of Jesus and our faith, because it witnesses that it was God’s initiative and above all it reveals who is conceived.”
So while Jesus is “fully human” and “made of earth,” he “comes from above, from heaven” and is truly “the Son of God.”
Thus, said the Pope, “the virginity of Mary and the divinity of Jesus reciprocally guarantee one another.”
Pope Benedict made his remarks to several thousand visitors gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He drew upon today’s Gospel reading, in which the Angel Gabriel told Mary “behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.”
The Pope noted that this fulfilled the “age-old promise” of Isaiah, who prophesied seven to eight centuries before that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and call him Immanuel.”
Pope Benedict then explained the importance of the fact that Mary was “very upset” at the Angel Gabriel’s news and asked “how can this be, since I have no relations with a man?”
“In her simplicity, Mary is wise,” said the Pope, “she does not doubt the power of God, but wants to better understand his will, to fully comply with this will.”
While Mary is “infinitely surpassed” by the mystery of the Incarnation, the Pope reflected, she also “perfectly occupies the place that, at the very heart of it, she was assigned.”
Her “heart and mind are fully humble,” and because of this “singular humility, God expects the ‘yes’ of this young girl to achieve His purpose” while still fully respecting “her dignity and freedom,” he said.
“Mary’s ‘yes’ means both motherhood and virginity,” Pope Benedict observed.
He finished his reflection on Mary's virginity and Jesus' conception by highlighting the spiritual significance of her faith. Mary's willingness to trust deeply in God and his plan, despite being a virgin, allowed her to "welcome Jesus and his divine life within."
"This is the mystery of Christmas."
Vatican City, Dec 18, 2011 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Benedict XVI told the bishops of New Zealand and the South Pacific on Dec. 17 that the Christian faith provides the best foundation for society, and that promoting the New Evangelization is the best way to build a Christian culture.
“We know that, ultimately, Christian faith provides a surer basis for life than the secular vision; for it is only in the mystery of the Word made flesh that the mystery of humanity truly becomes clear,” he told the bishops, who were gathered in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace on the final day of their “ad limina” visit to Rome. The visit lasted from Dec. 12-17.
The Pope noted that throughout their visit the bishops of the South Pacific raised the challenge secularism presents to each of their countries – “a reality that has a significant impact on the understanding and practice of the Catholic faith.”
The progress of secularism is particularly seen in “a weakened appreciation for the sacred nature of Christian marriage and the stability of the family,” he said.
The answer to this onslaught, Pope Benedict said, is to bring the New Evangelization to their shores. He explained that he established the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization last year for precisely this reason.
Pope Benedict and his predecessor have both emphasized the need for the New Evangelization – an effort to re-evangelize countries that were once Christian but have become secularized.
“Since the Christian faith is founded on the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, the new evangelization is not an abstract concept but a renewal of authentic Christian living based on the teachings of the Church,” he said.
The bishops and pastors of the Church are called to be the primary leaders in “formulating this response according to local needs and circumstances” so that all Catholics become “ambassadors of Christ both in the Church and in the civil arena,” said Pope Benedict.
He then spoke to the bishops about the need to care for their priests, urging them to work for “their sanctification, especially those who are experiencing difficulties and those who have little contact with their brother priests.”
If bishops are able to support their priests so that they are good, wise and holy, then these same priests will be “the best promoters of vocations to the priesthood,” he said.
Those young men who do come forward for the priesthood must also “receive a well-rounded formation that will prepare them to serve the Lord and his flock according to the heart of the Good Shepherd,” the Pope told the bishops.
The New Zealand and South Pacific bishops must also help religious brothers and sisters “remain faithful to the charisms of their founders,” so that “their witness to God will continue to be a beacon that points towards a life of faith, love and right living.”
Over the past week, the bishops said in meetings with Vatican officials that they often rely on the assistance of lay missionaries and catechists. The Pope told them to ensure that those catechists receive “a sound and ongoing formation” so that their zeal for the faith will bear much fruit.
Pope Benedict concluded by looking ahead to the Year of Faith, which will begin next October and is intended to give “a fresh impetus to the mission of the whole Church to lead human beings out of the wilderness in which they find themselves.”
The Pope prayed that although “you are spread among many islands and we are separated by great distances,” that one day all of the islands will profess “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all,” through the intercession of “Our Lady, Star of the Sea.”
In total, there are six dioceses in New Zealand. Meanwhile, the Episcopal Conference of the Pacific is made up of the bishops of Cook Islands, Fiji, French Polynesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, New Caledonia, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Wallis and Futuna, and three U.S. dependencies – the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and Guam.
As well as celebrating Mass at the tombs of St. Peter and St. Paul, the bishops of New Zealand had a meeting on Dec. 13 with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to discuss the cause of beatification of Sr. Suzanne Albert. She was a French-born nun who arrived in New Zealand as a young woman in 1860. Albert undertook great works of charity among the sick and orphaned. She died in 1926 in Wellington.