Archive of December 5, 2013

Notre Dame, FOCUS lawsuits challenge contraception mandate

South Bend, Ind., Dec 5, 2013 (CNA) - Lawsuits from the University of Notre Dame and the Fellowship of Catholic University Students are challenging the HHS mandate for forcing them to violate Catholic teaching or face crippling fines.

Notre Dame's president Father John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said the university's lawsuit is about the freedom to “live out a religious mission” with broader significance than a debate about contraception.

“For if we concede that the government can decide which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to be awarded the freedom to follow the principles that define their mission, then we have begun to walk down a path that ultimately will undermine those institutions,” Fr. Jenkins said in a Dec. 3 statement.

John Zimmer, FOCUS vice president of training and formation, said his student missionary organization works to provide “just and affordable healthcare for its employees” in accord with Catholic principles.

However, the federal mandate requiring organizations to provide employees access to health coverage for sterilization and contraception, including abortion-causing drugs, would force the organization to violate “our most sincere religious convictions” and participate in actions that it considers “gravely immoral.”

“If we resist these demands, we face exorbitant fines that would severely cripple, if not destroy, our organization and its missionary activities,” he said in a Dec. 3 blog post on the FOCUS website.

The mandate, issued by the Department of Health and Human Services under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, requires Notre Dame, FOCUS and similar religious organizations to provide the controversial coverage in insurance plans or through third-party administrators. The mandate’s narrow religious exemptions apply only to houses of worship, and not religious non-profit ministries, schools, hospitals or charities.

Notre Dame has re-filed its May 2012 lawsuit, which was dismissed in December 2012 on the grounds it was premature. Its new filing asks the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana to declare that the HHS mandate violates the university’s rights under the First Amendment and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The Washington, D.C.-based Alliance Defending Freedom is representing the Colorado-based FOCUS pro bono. It filed its suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado on Dec. 3.

“Faith-based organizations should be free to live and operate according to the faith they teach and live,”  said Mike Norton, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom. “If the government can fine Christian ministries out of existence because they want to uphold their faith, there is no limit to what other freedoms it can take away.”

Fr. Jenkins said the university concluded that the mandate’s rules would “require us to forfeit our rights, to facilitate and become entangled in a program inconsistent with Catholic teaching and to create the impression that the University cooperates with and condones activities incompatible with its mission.”

He said that if one presidential administration can override Notre Dame’s religious purpose and “use religious organizations to advance policies that undercut our values,” then so can other presidential administrations on other policies for the sake of following “some concept of popular will or the public good.”

This would mean that religious organizations “become mere tools for the exercise of government power, morally subservient to the state, and not free from its infringements.

Should this happen, the university president warned,  it will be “the end of genuinely religious organizations in all but name.”

Zimmer said FOCUS was resolute, noting Catholic the saints and martyrs who resisted unjust laws.

“We fight not just for ourselves, but for the hundreds and thousands of other organizations that are opposed to this mandate but do not have the resources or capacity to stand up for religious freedom,” he said.

“We did not ask for this fight. Indeed, Church leaders have done all in their power to avoid it. But this mandate has left us no choice. We call upon you for your prayers. We ask you to intercede for our apostolate and for the cause of religious liberty for a nation that was founded upon these important principles.”

Fr. Jenkins said the university believes its discussions with the Obama administration were “in good faith.” He expressed gratitude for “its efforts to accommodate its concerns.”

However, other lawsuits challenging the mandate suggest that the administration never intended to revise the mandate in response to Catholic concerns.

EWTN Global Catholic Network’s October 2013 lawsuit against the mandate noted that HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius spoke about the rule in an April 8 presentation at Harvard University in a way that indicated that concerns voiced during the mandate comment period from Feb. 1 to April 8, 2013 would not be addressed. Sebelius told her audience that “every employer,” including Catholic universities, will follow the mandate with the exception of churches and church dioceses beginning Aug. 1.

“It is clear from the timing of these remarks that defendants gave no consideration to the comments submitted,” the EWTN lawsuit said.

At least 87 cases representing 200 plaintiffs, including Protestant-owned institutions and businesses, have challenged the HHS mandate in court, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty reports.

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Group aims to ease US water poverty with Advent campaign

Smith Lake, N.M., Dec 5, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - A human rights organization is teaming up with a Catholic mission this Advent to help offer free, clean water to an area of the world that often gets overlooked when fighting water poverty: the United States.

“As a Roman Catholic myself and as a human rights organization, we really try to seek out these marginalized populations that just don’t have a voice,” said George McGraw, founder and executive director of DigDeep.

Over the past year, his organization, which is dedicated to improving access to water around the world, has been working with St. Bonaventure Indian Mission to help build a well in Smith Lake, N.M. – one of the most impoverished areas of the country.

“They need their basic rights defended. They need to be taught how to defend their basic rights themselves, need to be empowered and so that’s why we’re working here,” he told CNA in a recent interview.

Roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation borders New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Utah and is home to some 173,000 American Indians. Of that total, 40 percent of them have no water or toilet in their home.

“That’s a worse access rate than a lot of developing countries,” McGraw said.

While a similar project in East Africa would only take about $8,000 to complete, he added, the water project in New Mexico is estimated to cost close to $400,000.

“It’s harder to solve water poverty here and it’s tied up in so many other issues of poverty and economic inequality. It’s tied up with other things like drug use, alcoholism, and racism. It’s not a very clear cut issue,” he explained.

McGraw says his organization always relies on groups that are already well-trusted in the community so they don’t have to spend years establishing credibility on their own. This way, DigDeep can also be sure that their work will be carried out in the future by trusted community members.

As it is, the residents of the reservation around Smith Lake, N.M., rely on one hardworking grandmother, Darlene Arviso, to deliver a few hundred gallons of water to their homes each month.

Every day after she finishes driving her school bus route for the reservation, Arviso fills up the St. Bonaventure water truck and tries to deliver water to as many people in a 70-mile radius as she can. However, with nearly 250 homes to reach, she cannot possibly hit all the residences frequently enough.

“You and I use about 100 gallons of water per person per day,” McGraw pointed out, “so it’s not much at all. The water will run out and then in a couple days they’ll have to go back to hauling water either with their car or on their backs.”

DigDeep’s project will consist of two phases. The first will focus on increasing access and delivery of water by digging a well in the center of the community with free emergency water taps on a piece of land owned by the Diocese of Gallup. Next, they’ll work to improve the trucking system in order to reach more residents in a shorter amount of time.

In the second phase, DigDeep hopes to create elevated water containers for each home to power taps and toilets by gravity and help prevent freezing in the winter.

Although the group has been working on the project for some time, they are choosing to seek donations now during this “semi-penitential season of Advent.”

Just this week, they launched a new website for the campaign,, for prospective donors to learn more about the project as well as purchase Christmas gifts that will benefit the project.

“People can buy these online and then all of the proceeds of these gifts will go toward the project. It’s sort of like buy a gift and give a gift at the same time,” McGraw said.

As Americans gather with loved ones to celebrate Christmas, he noted, it is important for them to remember that “other American families will are going to celebrate the holiday without a tap or toilet at home.”

Far from being solely a foreign issue, he said, “water poverty has a zip code – these are American families that live just hours from you.”


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Schedule of Pope's Advent, Christmas liturgies released

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Vatican has issued the calendar of all liturgical celebrations that Pope Francis is slated to preside over during the Advent and Christmas seasons, extending through January of 2014.

Pope Francis opened the liturgical new year by celebrating first Vespers on Saturday, Nov. 30 inside of St. Peter’s Basilica in anticipation of the First Sunday of Advent.

During this celebration, the Pope gave a special address to university students, encouraging the youth to go against the tide of secular culture.

The next day, Dec. 1, the pontiff made a pastoral visit to the Roman parish of “San Cirillo Alessandrino,” Saint Cyril of Alexandria, where he celebrated Mass for the First Sunday of Advent at 6 p.m., administering the Sacrament of Confirmation to youths present and emphasizing to parishioners that life is a journey of encounter with Christ.

On Sunday Dec. 8 in honor of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Pope will pay homage to Mary Immaculate at 4 p.m. in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna.

Tuesday Dec. 24, Pope Francis will celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord with Midnight Mass, which will be held at 9:30 p.m. in the Papal Chapel of the Vatican Basilica.

Christmas day, Wednesday Dec. 25, the pontiff will honor the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord with a special “Urbi et Orbi” blessing at 12 p.m. from the central loggia of the Vatican Basilica.

The “Urbi et Orbi” is a special blessing which includes a papal address and an Apostolic Blessing given to the city of Rome and to the entire world on certain significant occasions in the Church.

On Tuesday Dec. 31, Pope Francis will celebrate the first Vespers and “Te Deum” at 5 p.m. in the Vatican Basilica for the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God, offering special thanksgiving for the past year.

In January, the Pope will honor the Solemnity of Mary Mother of God and 47th World Day of Peace, both occuring on the first of the month, with Mass in the Vatican Basilica at 10 a.m.

For the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord on Monday Jan. 6, the pontiff will celebrate Mass in the Vatican Basilica at 10 a.m.

Pope Francis will bring his Christmas celebrations to a close on Sunday Jan. 12 for First Sunday after the Epiphany, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, by offering a special Mass, and baptizing newborns in the Sistine Chapel at 9:45 a.m.

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Vatican launches new commission for the protection of minors

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Earlier today, Pope Francis accepted a proposal for a new commission which will advise him on the protection of children from abuse, as well as how to offer help to those who are already victims.

“Accepting a proposal that has been presented by the Council of Cardinals, the Holy Father has decided to establish a very specific commission for the protection of children,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley told journalists in a Dec. 5 press conference announcing the new initiative.

Cardinal O’Malley is the archbishop of Boston, Mass., USA, and is a member of the Council of Eight Cardinals which was formed by Pope Francis earlier this year to advise him on matters of Church reform and governance.

The proposal for the new commission was originally proposed during yesterday’s evening session, and was officially approved by the Holy Father this morning, the cardinal revealed.

“The commission,” noted Cardinal O’Malley, “will be able to advise the Holy Father about the protection of children and the pastoral care for victims of abuse.”

“Among the responsibilities of the commission will be to study the present programs in place for protection of children and to come up with suggestions or new initiatives on the part of the curia in collaboration with the bishops and the episcopal conferences.”

Cardinal O’Malley emphasized that the goal of the commission is not to take over the role of the individual bishop in determining policies for their dioceses, stating that for this, the “competence lies with bishops.”

Their hope, he expressed, is that the work of the commission will be a “model” for practices which provide an “adequate, pastoral response” to situations of abuse.

When asked if the commission would deal directly with situations where there is a lack of accountability on the part of the bishop in reporting cases of abuse in their dioceses, Cardinal O’Malley stated that it is yet to be determined if this will be a duty of the new commission or of another Vatican body.

The cardinal revealed that the commission will be composed of “international experts” in various fields regarding the protection of minors, including that of psychology.

There is no date set for when the commission will officially begin their work, but Cardinal O’Malley explained that Pope Francis will soon release a document including new details.

This announcement comes in the midst of the second set of meetings of the Council of Eight being held Dec. 3-5 at Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse, following an initial meeting held Oct. 1-3.

Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi affirmed that the Council’s next set of meetings will also last for three days, and is slated to take place Feb. 17-19 of next year.

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Shipwrecked man survives underwater for three days praying psalms

Lagos, Nigeria, Dec 5, 2013 (CNA) - After a shipwreck off the coast of Nigeria, a 29-year-old man survived three days at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean while constantly reciting a psalm his wife mentioned to him during their last conversation.

Harrison Okene was a Nigerian cook on the tugboat Jascon 4, which was one of three vessels pulling an oil tanker. It capsized and sank about 32 kilometers off the coast of Nigeria in late May with its 12 crewmembers aboard.

Although the shipwreck occurred in May, a video of the dramatic rescued surfaced this week and was published by the Associated Press on YouTube.

The video shows Okene being found alive by divers who were inspecting the shipwreck.

Okene was in the bathroom when the boat sank 100 feet to the ocean floor. He was trapped in an air pocket, where he remained for three days reciting a passage from Psalm 54: “Oh God, by your name save me...The Lord sustains my life.”

The video captures the moment in which a diver saw the cook's hand and thought it belonged to a dead body. When the hand grasped at him, he shouted, “He's alive, he's alive,” to his fellow rescue workers, who were watching on monitors on the surface.

Okene said he thought only a miracle would lead to his rescue and during the long wait, he began “reminiscing on the verses I read before I slept. I read the Bible from Psalm 54 to 92. My wife had sent me the verses to read that night when she called me before I went to bed.”

In an interview with Nigerian newspaper The Nation, Okene recalled that he began to invoke the name of God and that he was in a daze because the surroundings went completely dark.

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Christian words without Christ bring 'madness,' says Pope

Vatican City, Dec 5, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - In his daily homily on Dec. 5, Pope Francis reflected that the words and actions of a Christian must be centered on Jesus, or they will be empty, leading to division and the “madness of pride.”

“A Christian word without Christ at its center leads to vanity, to pride, power for the sake of power,” said the Pontiff during Mass at the Vatican’s Casa Santa Martha.

“And the Lord knocks these people down. This is a constant in the history of salvation,” he observed, pointing to the words of Mary’s Magnificat.

God will cast down those who are vain and prideful, believing themselves to be made of rock, the Pope explained, according to Vatican Radio. Rather, God wants us to build our lives on Him as a solid foundation.

“Isaiah, in the first reading, says: 'Trust in the Lord always! The Lord is the rock!'” the Holy Father emphasized.

“This figure of the rock refers to the Lord. One word is strong, life-giving, it can go forward, it can tolerate all the attacks, if this word is rooted in Jesus Christ.”

The Pope called on those present to examine their consciences in order to determine whether their Christian words are truly founded on the rock of Christ.

“A Christian word that does not have vital roots, in the life of a person, in Jesus Christ, is a Christian without Christ!” he exclaimed, adding that “Christian words without Christ cheat, they do evil…they begin to travel the path of madness.”

Pope Francis added that “when there is no Jesus Christ this also creates division among us, it makes division in the Church.”

We must put our Christian words into practice or they will be empty, he said, pointing to the Pharisees whom Jesus rebukes for knowing God’s law but failing to live it.

The Pope encouraged the faithful to “ask the Lord to help in this humility, to speak words rooted in Jesus Christ.”

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Amid persecution, Christianity growing in 'Global South'

Washington D.C., Dec 5, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Researchers say the Christian population is growing in regions that experience anti-Christian persecution, though this threatens their ability to contribute to societies.

“Persecution is growing because Christianity is growing in the places where people are persecuted,” said Todd Johnson of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Speaking during a Dec. 5 media call, he characterized anti-Christian persecution as “growing fast.” His research estimates that one in five Christians, 500 million people, currently live in countries where Christians are likely to be persecuted. By 2020, their numbers are expected to rise to 600 million, 25 percent of the Christian population.

Johnson noted that the Christian population has significantly shifted from Europe and North America to the “Global South”: Africa, Asia and Latin America.

He also observed a change from 20th century anti-Christian persecution, which was predominantly state-based.

“Persecution in the 21st century is both state-based and society-based,” Johnson said. “Persecutors today represent a wide variety of ideologies: communist, national security state, religious nationalists, and Muslim majorities.”
However, Muslim majority countries’ persecution of Christians makes up only 25 percent of all such oppression.

Johnson is one of several scholars who will be taking part in the upcoming conference, “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives.” The conference, which will be held Dec. 13-14 at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome, aims to highlight Christianity’s political, religious and economic contributions.

Timothy Shah of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, also participated in the media call, explaining that the Rome conference intends to “get behind the headlines” about global anti-Christian persecution and ask “fundamental questions” about trends in persecution and their impact on society and global stability.

“Wherever you look, there are headlines about this growing phenomenon of attacks (and) persecution against Christian communities, from Indonesia to China, to India, to sub-Saharan Africa and to the Middle East,” Shah said.

Also discussed during the Dec. 5 conference call was the situation of Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Mariz Tadros of the University of Sussex noted that Christians in the Middle East do not consider themselves “minorities” because “they see themselves as part of the fabric of society. They see their faith extending over 2,000 years to when the initial churches were built.”

She said that the recent political revolution in Egypt initially had an “extremely inclusive” goal to create space for all citizens irrespective of their religion, gender and class.

However, the rise of some Islamic political parties like the Muslim Brotherhood has correlated with an increase in “a very exclusionary discourse” that puts pressure on Christians, non-mainstream versions of Islam and other non-Islamic religions.

Christian churches in Egypt suffered intense attacks in mid-August, when over 64 churches were attacked or burned in one 24-hour period.

Tadros said the attacks on Christian churches are unprecedented in modern Egypt since its establishment three centuries ago.

Although religious intolerance is increasing, Tadros also noted a “strong resistance movement” against anti-Christian violence. She stressed that there were no instances of a Christian responding to violence with violence.

“This was extremely important in not bringing the country into a state of civil war,” she explained.

Coptic civil society leaders are advocating not only for the rights of Christians, but for all citizens irrespective of their religion, she said.

Tadros also lamented “misrepresentation” and “bias” in news coverage in the U.S. and other Western outlets that neglected the situation of Christians in Egypt.

“The plight of the Christians was completely uncovered,” she said. “It made people think ‘why is it some people’s suffering is considered more newsworthy than others?’”

She urged media coverage to convey local voices and civil society associations that are talking about persecution in their area. However, she also cautioned that such news coverage “does a lot of damage” when it is linked to the interests of the U.S.

Christianity is also growing in China, where there are still “very strict” restrictions that tend to burden Christianity more than other religions, said Fengang Yang of Purdue University.

He explained that the Christian population has passed a “critical threshold” of 5-10 percent of the population.

“The number of Chinese Protestants is going to grow dramatically,” he said.

According to the scholar’s projections, China could become the largest Christian country in the world at some point between 2025 and 2032, surpassing the number of Christians in the U.S. His projections, which are not certain, indicate China’s Protestant population might reach 255 million people.

Fengang said Christianity has become more visible in part through Christians’ prominence in disaster relief efforts, such as the response to the massive 2008 earthquake in Sechuan province.

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Legion of Christ reaffirms commitment to addressing sex abuse

Rome, Italy, Dec 5, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The acting general director of the Legion of Christ has shared the steps the order has taken to prevent sexual abuse and to respond to its allegations, focusing on the gravity of abuse and its victims' suffering.

“When we confront the reality of sexual abuse, it is helpful to keep certain complementary values in mind: compassion and solidarity with the victims, the responsibility to protect people who are under our pastoral care, the right of the accused to a due process, the promotion and defense of justice, and – keeping in mind that sexual abuse is a behavior that will never be tolerated – mercy and support of our brothers who are guilty of this crime,” wrote Fr. Sylvester Heereman in a Dec. 5 letter.

“Finally, we should see this from the point of view of Christ, who is capable of making all things new. The last word belongs, not to evil, but to him.”

The letter was sent to all members of the Legion of Christ shortly before its general chapter, which will establish a new constitution and elect new leadership.

Fr. Heerman outlined what the Legion has done to deal with sex abuse, as well as “the principles that guide the actions of the Legion in the prevention of sexual abuse and in responding to allegations made against any of our brothers.”

The letter comes the same day the North American territorial director announced that it has no reason to doubt the truthfulness of sex abuse allegations against one of its former novice instructors, Fr. William Izquierdo.

Fr. Heereman said the announcement “confronts us with the painful and horrifying reality of sexual abuse of minors by members of our congregation.” He acknowledged that abuse, especially that committed by a priest or consecrated person, “brutally obscures the light of the Gospel.”

The director of the North American territory, Fr. Luis Garza, wrote in a separate letter that he was informed of an allegation against Fr. Izquierdo in July 2012, committed when he was a novice instructor in Connecticut – a position he held from 1982 to 1994. An independent investigation concluded in August 2013, and its findings were presented in October.

Fr. Izquierdo is now 85 and suffers from advanced dementia; he has not exercised ministry since 2008. Fr. Garza said he would be “moved to an assisted living facility where he will receive proper treatment.”

Fr. Heereman's letter noted that “clear steps” have been taken against abuse of minors throughout the Legion's territories, and that the upcoming general chapter will include reports of progress from each area.

He offered a diagnosis of the congregation: of the 1,133 priests who have been ordained in the Legion, 35 have been accused of the sexual abuse of minors. In 14 of those cases, it was determined that sexual abuse did not occur: 10 of the accused were innocent, and four committed imprudent behavior, but not abuse. Nine other priests were found guilty and punished canonically; two had already left ministry; and 10 cases remain under review.

Fr. Heeremen added that six allegations of sexual misconduct by superiors against adults under their authority, including those against the Legion's founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, had been levied.

These figures indicate that fewer than four percent of Legion priests have been accused of sexual impropriety, and fewer than one percent have been found guilty of sexual abuse.

“Today I can assure one and all that we have put the necessary means in place to ensure that no member of the congregation can have ministerial contact with minors if we have information that indicates that he has committed a crime of sexual abuse,” Fr. Heeremen said.

He emphasized that steps have been taken in the Legion both for preventing sexual abuse and handling accusations. The order has sought advice from the Holy See, dioceses, and other congregations about how to prevent and respond to abuse.

Principles gleaned from that advice include: handling allegations at a more local level to ensure that “the civil and ecclesiastical laws of each country” are complied with; proper selection of candidates for the congregation; codes of conduct; clear procedures, and care for both victims and accused; prioritizing victims and the prevention of future occurrences through publicizing allegations when necessary, in spite of “scandal and the damage to the reputation of the priest”; the presumption of innocence; and the expulsion of the guilty in formation, and the laicization or restriction on ministry of those guilty who are ordained.

“The victims should be at the center of our attentive care,” Fr. Heereman wrote. “We must ask ourselves how we can help these persons to rediscover life and regain trust in Jesus Christ and in the Church. We should all feel responsible for ensuring that in the Legion of Christ there is not room for ambiguity with respect to protecting the innocence of minors who are under our pastoral care. This issue will need to be addressed in the general chapter.”

As a Christian response to sexual abuse, he recommended care for victims as a priority; proper discernment by seminarians; willingness to listen to and care for victims; and the obligation not to remain silent about abuse.

“May the Lord grant us all the grace of following the paths of the Gospel, of faithfully observing his commandments and of configuring our lives with the mystery of the Lord's cross,” Fr. Heereman concluded.

“May he, the God of all consolation, help us bring peace and the light of the Gospel to the men and women he has entrusted to our pastoral care.”

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