Archive of December 10, 2013

Sinners, sex and NFP: My conversation with Simcha Fisher

Rome, Italy, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA) - “The Sinner's Guide to Natural Family Planning” has 95 percent five-star reviews on Despite its growing popularity and critical acclaim, however, the book's author humbly describes herself as “a housewife with a bunch of blogs.”

I found myself curious to speak with the woman who writes this message to married Catholic couples in her introduction:

“ love each other, but your sex life is kind of a mess. You refuse contraception out of obedience to Church teaching, and truly believe that natural family planning is better than those awful chemicals everyone else uses anyway. You're doing everything right...but having no fun at all...How natural is that?”

I caught up with the 38-year-old mother of nine last week to ask her some questions about her new book. Our conversation ranged from the hilarious to the profound. What follows below is an edited version of the conversation.

Editor's Note:“Natural Family Planning” or “NFP” is a non-contraceptive method of fertility regulation approved by the Catholic Church. The method entails keeping track of a woman's cycles of fertility, (often through charting her body's natural signs) and if trying to avoid pregnancy, abstinence from intercourse during the fertile period.

Q: What inspired you to write a book called 'The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning?'

A: What inspired me to write it was struggling through NFP for many years and not being able to find anything that was honest about what it was really like to live it. You can find a lot of books about how to chart and you can find a lot of books about the theological reasons why NFP is an acceptable way of spacing children but you can't find a lot about how you're supposed to have a relationship with your husband or how you're supposed to figure out if you have a good enough reason to postpone another pregnancy, or something like that.

I was looking for this information and I was looking and looking and I couldn't find it, so I thought well heck, I can do this.

Q: Who is the intended audience of your book?

A: My book is aimed at people who already know the mechanics of NFP, who are already pretty much persuaded that they are going to be using it: they're either already very interested in it or they're already using it, and they're already more or less committed to it and are discovering that it's not the bed of roses and walks on the sunset-lit beach holding hands that it is sometimes portrayed to be. A lot of people take their pre-Cana (marriage preparation) course, or they read their first NFP book, and it talks about the marriage building aspects or how it improves communication and how people who use NFP very rarely divorce, but it sort of glosses over how you get there.  

Q: Where do you think the 'glossing-over' comes from? Why do you think many NFP proponents have such a 'rosy' view of the method?

A: I have a lot of sympathy for it. Like I said in my book, if you take somebody who has never even considered not using contraception – if you talk to somebody for whom contraception is just normal, it's just what responsible, reasonable people do – and you tell them, 'well, we're not going to do that. Instead, we're going to do something that requires self-sacrifice and self-discipline and denial of self, and it's redemptive suffering!' (Laughs) People are not going to line up for that: they're just not.  

It's something that's so foreign to the way that people think nowadays, that you have to make it seem like a good thing. But it's very easy to fall into the trap of making it seem like it's only a good thing, and sort of glossing over the part where the way that you get to love your spouse and have better communication is to talk about things that make you both feel very uncomfortable; or the way that your marriage draws closer is because you go through suffering together and you have to sacrifice for each other.

They just sort of skip over that part because they want people to have something that's good, and they're very afraid that if they paint a realistic picture that they will frighten people off. And I understand that very, very much. I even fall into that trap myself sometimes, because people write to me, and they say, 'wow, NFP sound really interesting! What can you tell me about it?' (And I think,) 'Um, well, let's see...' It's really hard to know how to approach it because we don't want to frighten people off.

People don't understand what love is. That's the main problem. People don't understand what love is: they think it's all about feelings, and they think it's all about being swept away by passion and they don't understand that love is a gift of self. I think people actually do want to hear that. I think people are very thirsty for something that is meaningful in their lives.

We all have this thirst for true love: not just romance, but a thirst for something higher, and something that takes us out of ourselves. Everybody is really looking for that and when you use NFP for a long enough time, if you let it, it can show you the way to escape from the prison of your own desires.

But that's not a great selling point, if you're just introducing it to people! (Laughs again.) So, see, I totally understand what the dilemma is.

People write to me really angry, and they say, 'we've been married for two years and we went to the pre-Cana class and we were just flat-out lied to.' In some places it's not just a matter of people putting rosy-tinted glasses on, they're just flat-out lied to. They say, oh you only have to abstain three or four days a month. And the way they get at those numbers is they say, 'well, nobody wants to have sex when they're on their period anyways so we won't count those days and people tend to have sex only on these days anyway, so we won't even count those days…' and it's a lie. And I think that's stupid and awful when people do that – that's just a mistake. Nobody wants to get lied to, and then when you find out it's not really true, you think 'well I wonder what else is a lie?'

I think that the way to teach people about NFP is to give them several different ways of approaching it and not just tell them that it's all one thing. So I'm hoping that my book will be a companion piece. I don't think it's necessarily appropriate as everybody's introduction to NFP if they've never heard of it before.  

Q: Do you see a difference in the way younger people, the 'Millennials,' are approaching NFP?

A: I have been noticing more younger readers lately; I guess mostly through Amazon reviews. There are people who are saying that they've been married for a couple years and they feel like they've been lied to (about NFP).

Younger people are used to the idea that everything is fake. My kids are like this. They've grown up with CGI Animation – they see a picture on the internet and it's a completely realistic photo, they say, 'is that real?' When I was little I never would have asked that because I think, 'it's a photograph, it's real,' but with my kids it's a perfectly reasonable question because there's Photoshop and all these fancy animations.

I think that people of that age are in the habit of questioning reality. When something is presented as true, they just automatically question whether it's 'really really true,' or just 'fake-true,' so I think it's very important to be very clear with people that this is not a trick – this is not some kind of illusion that we are talking about.  

And they do get angry, because no one wants to be a sucker. It's one thing to be a sucker if you're sitting in a movie theater and you got tricked into thinking that that guy's guts are getting pulled out or King Kong really is on the Empire State building or whatever, and then you realize, 'oh that's not really true, ha ha I got fooled,' but if you're a few years into your marriage and you realize, wow I got fooled – that is a whole other thing, and that is a really serious disturbance, especially when it's being done in the name of religion. When people are presenting something as God's teaching and it turns out not to be true, that's incredibly damaging.

So I think I would rather err on the side of scaring people a little bit, as long as you also present the beauty of it. I think that's extremely important to present it as something that is hard but beautiful – and I think people are going to be up to that challenge, but people are not – and rightly so – going to be up to the challenge of being lied to and getting over it, because that's too painful and humiliating and damaging.  

Prosperity gospels and ridiculous bodies

Q: We've talked about some of the pastoral problems associated with teaching NFP – sometimes proponents of the method feel like they need to exaggerate the benefits and ignore the challenges because NFP can be a “hard sell” in a culture that doesn’t value self-sacrifice. But do you think there might also be underlying philosophical or theological presumptions behind such practices that need to be corrected?

A: You know how in some Protestant churches they have the idea of the 'prosperity gospel,' in which if you follow everything God says, you'll get rich? I think that in the Catholic Church there's something of (that idea) that if you do everything right you're going to be happy – and that you will feel fulfilled: that if you follow all the right theological methods you're going to feel 'sexy' all the time.

They talk about the 'honeymoon effect' as if it appeared in an encyclical somewhere. You hear these phrases so often you start to feel like it's actually part of theology and that just as Jesus said, 'if you follow me I have the words of everlasting life,' he probably also said, 'if you use NFP you will have a happy marriage.' Or, 'if you use NFP you will not divorce,' or 'you will always enjoy sex.'

And that is certainly not true. This is one of the things that obviously you're not going to put on the front of the pamphlet teaching somebody about NFP, but I think there's a little bit of the equivalent to the 'prosperity gospel' in NFP circles.

That's part of it: they've convinced themselves that it's your guaranteed ticket to happiness and contentment and fulfillment. And the other part of it is that there are a lot of NFP 'cheerleaders' who are so used to saying, 'use NFP instead of contraception,' that they've convinced themselves and tried to convince other people that you have to use NFP: and you most certainly do not!  

And I get accused of this a lot of the time, about telling people that you have to use NFP. When we first got married, we had three kids in three years: we weren't using NFP. I have actually heard from people that it's somehow sub-human not to plan pregnancies, that God has given us this information and we are so privileged to be able to understand how our bodies work, if you decide not to find out how your bodies work and just go ahead and have babies, then you're sinning or you're disrespecting God in some way – you know that's crazy! That's insane – you're married and you want to have a baby, so go for it! I mean, what are we talking about here?

I don't think that they have bad hearts or anything like that, but people are so enthusiastic about it that they really do get carried away and they forget that NFP is something that we use if we have to, and not something that we use because we must or because we should. We use it if it makes sense in our marriage right now, but we are certainly not required to use it. Anybody who's been married for a few years knows that there are some times when it's just not a good time to have a baby. But I really hesitate to ever say that it could be a wrong thing for a husband and wife to have a baby – I can't quite get my mind around that.

So there are two dangers there for people who are really enthusiastic about NFP: one is behaving as if its the equivalent of the 'prosperity gospel,' and two, that 'you must use NFP.' (I certainly didn't have this experience myself but a lot of people in their pre-Cana classes hear that).

But the Church should be encouraging people to have babies if they possibly can because it's such a gift!  

There's no possible way that we can deserve or understand what we're receiving when we receive another baby. And there is a danger of the Church being indistinguishable from the rest of the world in its attitude toward children and saying that you have to have their college education already in the bank before you even consider conceiving or something like that. That's really sad and depressing. There's a difference between being prudent and being afraid of children.

Q: Sometimes in Church discussions of marriage, we hear a lot about how the sacrament is somehow a 'participation in the life of the Trinity,' but no mention of the practicalities of married life, such as the sick child who has kept the parents up all night. Do you think that the discussion around NFP tends to be similar – it’s portrayed as a golden ticket to the 'inner life of the Trinity' without mention of the life-long struggle it often is?

A: Yes, and that can be extremely discouraging for people because they look at themselves and they say, 'well, I am doing NFP and I am going to mass every week and we are going to confession at least once a month. We're doing everything right and I'm miserable! I have postpartum depression, and we never have enough money for the rent and I thought it was going to be joyful!'

Or, things are actually going well and they're just experiencing the normal ups and downs of having a body, of being a creature that has a body: sometimes when we have sex, it doesn't seem particularly holy or profound, but that's not a sign that we're doing it wrong. That's just a sign of: 'I have a body, and my body is a little bit ridiculous and it's extremely limited, and this is what it's like having a body.'

The reason that we seem dissatisfied with it is because the world is not our true home. But being dissatisfied is not a sign that we are doing something wrong, or that we don't understand the profound meanings behind sexuality or something like that.  

This is something that C.S. Lewis wrote about a lot – I quoted a passage in my book where he talks about us being balloons, and we're flying so high and then somebody gives a little twitch on the string and we get yanked down again...and both of those aspects of it, being able to fly, but also being tethered – that's what it's like, being a creature that has a body and a soul.

(When I hear the profound theology,) I don't want to fall into the trap of saying, 'oh what do these celibate men have to say about sexuality?' That's certainly not what I want to imply at all, but we do need to have voices from everywhere coming in so that we have a full picture of how these things actually work.

We have to have the full range of voices in order to get the complete sound, in order to get the complete chorus of what it's supposed to sound like. I would not want to denigrate the people who are extremely into the academic theological side of it, but I really encourage them to be open to people who are not necessarily academics but who have the experience under their belts and are willing to speak very frankly and concretely.

That's something that I really try hard to do because it's a real trap to fall into the theological language: ‘I must have covered it because I'm quoting directly from the encyclicals so I know that this is true.’ Well, it doesn't matter if it's true if nobody knows what you're talking about! It's like cooking a perfectly well-balanced meal, but your children won't eat it because they don't recognize it and they don't like it – it doesn't matter how nutritious it is if nobody will eat it.  

Q: Has your own understanding of NFP changed over the years?

A: One thing that I used to believe was that it was possible to use NFP in such a bad way that it was just the same as contraception. That if you were doing so selfishly and for such petty and shallow reasons, it was really the same as contraception. Catholics were just fooling themselves if they thought they were following God by using NFP, if they were doing it wrong. You hear this phrase a lot: 'using NFP with a contraceptive mentality,' and I used to think that that was not only possible, but probably a serious problem within the Church.  

You know, you look around and you see Catholics in the pew and they only have one or two kids, and you think, 'hmm...well, none of my business,’ but you know, deep down in the heart of you, you think ‘hmm...I know what they're up to.' And you know, we've been married for 16 years and we have nine children and I no longer assume that I know anything about anything about anybody, ever. And that's the truth. Sometimes I find myself making assumptions about people, and then I'm reminded: 'you don't know anything!' That's one of the messages of my book: you have enough to do keeping track of your own marriage and your own heart and your own conscience, and there's no benefit whatsoever in imagining that you know the first thing about anybody else.  

I think that's it's possible to use NFP selfishly, but that's the sin of selfishness, that's not the sin of contraception. I've had enough experience in my marriage to understand that the physical difference between contraception and NFP is an extremely meaningful difference. This is one of the messages of 'Theology of the Body': that what is in your heart matters, but what you do with your body also matters and it's very bad theology to say that NFP can be the same as contraception – it's just false.

Getting through the dark times

Q: Do you have plans to write more about these topics in the future?

A: I was hoping to write my next book about beauty. And this is just a very faint ghost of an idea because I just barely signed a contract for this book last week, but I was sort of hoping to get away from this. I'm still 38 years-old, I'm still living it, so sometimes it gets a little bit too close to home and I'd like to talk about something else! I mean, I'm really glad that people are interested in it. There's been a very overwhelming interest in this topic and I'm really glad that people are talking about it and I hope that it opens up new discussions for people. But I would be happy if somebody else would carry it on from here.

Q: Is it difficult for your husband that you write so much about NFP/ Marriage? Do you discuss your writings with him?

A: Anytime I publish anything that's even remotely personal, I make sure that everything's ok with him first. And there's a lot more that I haven't told. A lot people say 'wow, you really laid it all out there' (and I think,) 'you have no idea!’ This is something that we've come to a much better understanding of over the years. When I first started writing in public I was definitely too open and that was something we definitely had to learn about, but I always try to make it personal enough so that it will seem real to people and so that they will know I'm not lying to them, without being so personal that it violates the privacy of our marriage.

And he's glad because he knows that as much as women feel the need to see their experience in print, and they feel like maybe they don't have any friends that use NFP, they're really glad to see somebody speaking honestly about it. I think for men there's even more of a need, because men generally don't talk to each other about these things.  Women, maybe they can't find the book that talks about their experience of NFP, but maybe they have somebody that they can chat with – one of their friends or their mother or their sister or somebody like that. Men, even if they have a Catholic friend that they know is using NFP, they're probably not going to talk about what they're struggling with, so one of my hopes for the book was that it would spark some conversations between husbands and wives.

I even give examples of, 'here are some of the questions that you can ask each other,' or 'here are some of things that you may not have considered that your husband is thinking: you can ask your husband if he's thinking this.' I was hoping to go beyond what my and my husband's experience has been and to help people to understand their spouses better. Because when it comes down to it, it doesn't matter what anybody else is experiencing. The only thing that matters is what happens between a husband and wife, so that's the main conversation that I was trying to start, is the one between husband and wife.

Q: So far, have you received any feedback about that from men, or from wives who have told you they've been able to talk with their husbands more?

A: Yes, and that's one of the things that I am really happy about, because I didn't know (what the response would be.) Even having talked about this so much in public, I really didn't know how much of it was, 'well, and this solves the Fisher's problems!' But a lot of the reviews on Amazon that I've gotten have said specifically, 'We've already had some good conversations because of this book.' Hearing it from men, especially, makes me feel happy – when I get reviews from men saying 'this is something that has already been helpful in our marriage.'

Q: Would you recommend this book for priests?

A: Yes, please! No really, I would because a lot of the time when I go to confession – and this is one thing I keep mentioning a lot in the book: that you have to go to confession a lot, you have to keep going back and back to confession because that is the only way you are going to get anywhere, really –  a lot of the time when I confess things to priests, they'll absolve me, which is great, but when they hear people in confession, they're only hearing a few minutes of the story. I'm hoping to give a larger picture of what the inside of a marriage, and what the inside of a married sexual relationship, is really like. Because I think priests tend to hear people who are in crisis a lot of the time, and that's when people go to them. They hear the dry academic theology of it, and they hear people in crisis, and I think it can only be helpful for them to hear more of the story.

Q: So if you were invited to speak at a seminary, would you go?

A: I love priests! I have never come across a priest who isn't interested in marriage and eager to learn more about married relationships and really just burning to help people, because they really understand that that's where the Church starts, inside a marriage. Whether it's people having children, or raising children who will become priests and nuns or single people who are supporting priests and nuns and supporting the Catholic schools, that's where it starts.
I think sometimes you will come across a priest who is very enthusiastic about these things, having all the enthusiasm of the theological side of it and having no idea what they're going to come across when they start to hear people's actual confessions and things like that. So I would love to, I would jump at the chance!

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about NFP or your book?

My NFP teacher tells the story of these people who came in one time with a chart that had been torn into four pieces and then sheepishly taped back together, and to me that said so much about the experience of NFP!

We want to give people some reason to come back to it, because it's very normal for people to have those moments where they want to tear the chart up or they literally do tear the chart up.

And it's really important to give people the tools to realize, 'this is why it's important, this is why we're doing it, and these are the things you can hope for' – because my book is not all about, 'yes it sucks and this is why you have to keep on forging ahead and this is why you have to keep on suffering.’ My book is about getting through the dark times and remembering not just that you can be happy again, and you can have good sex again, but when you get through the hard times there is something on the other side of it, which is way more than you imagined and something that you really can't express in a tri-fold pamphlet about NFP.  

When you say things like 'fulfillment' and 'joy' and contentment' that doesn't say very much. And it's something that you can't really understand or express until you experience it. So in some ways, they're overselling and promising things that they can't really deliver on, and in some ways, they're really underselling it too, because when we say a word like 'joy,' we're not talking about happiness, we're talking about a completely different animal, and this is something that people can achieve in their marriages, but it doesn't come easy, or cheap, or quickly.

Kerri Lenartowick currently lives in Rome where she is pursuing her doctorate in Theology at the Pontifical Lateran University and working as a journalist for Catholic News Agency/EWTN News. She obtained her S.T.L. and S.T.B. degrees from Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit MI, and her M.A. and B.A. in Theology from Ave Maria University and the University of Dallas, respectively. Over the years, she has worked for various aspects of the pro-life movement and spoken to women’s groups across the country.

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Atheist film critic says 'Philomena' movie is an attack on Catholics

New York City, N.Y., Dec 10, 2013 (CNA) - An atheist movie reviewer has criticized the new film “Philomena” as “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics,” saying that it unfairly shows the Church as exploitative and coercive.

“Anyone who is honest understands that it lambastes the way Irish Catholicism played out in 1950s Ireland, using falsehoods whenever necessary to underscore the point,” said Kyle Smith, a movie critic for the New York Post.

“Some like ‘Philomena’ for that reason. Some think there should be a little more art than diatribe to a film,” he continued.

The Weinstein Company movie dramatizes the story of Philomena Lee, an Irish woman who gave up her son for adoption at a convent in 1950s Ireland after she gave birth out of wedlock at age 18. The movie is told from the perspective of Lee 50 years later as she travels with journalist Martin Sixsmith to learn what happened to her son.

Smith, a self-described atheist, initially characterized the movie in a Nov. 21 review as “a witless bore,” “90 minutes of organized hate,” and “a diabolical-Catholics film, straight-up.”

In response, the Weinstein Company ran a full-page ad in the Dec. 5 New York Times citing the review and publishing excerpts of a letter from Lee to Smith. The elderly Lee said she has “a very strong hold on my faith” and that the movie was meant to be “a testament to good things, not an attack.”

Smith responded on Dec. 7 that Lee ignored how that the movie depicted her in a negative way, as a “dimwit and butt of most of its jokes” in comparison to the “sophisticate” atheist journalist.

The film critic said the movie was “lazy” and “contrived” with “smack-you-in-the-nose” dialogue like the journalist character’s “crowd-pleasing, film-defining cry ‘f---ing Catholics’.”

While the movie portrays the Church as cruel and coercive, Smith noted that it was in some ways a refuge for single mothers who could not support children on their own in the face of social ostracism.

“We all know how cruel it was for the mid-century Catholic Church to provide shelter for scorned women written off as dead by their families, help them give birth to their children and place the adoptees in loving homes,” Smith said with sarcasm. “Today we’d be much more compassionate: we’d simply abort all those kids. Problem solved.”

He added that the film is encouraging anti-Catholic sentiment among some reviewers, such as James Killough of, whose review cited the obscene reference to Catholics in its title.

Killough’s review said that the Church has abused “just about everyone in the history of its existence,” and those who disagree with actor and Steve Coogan’s depiction of it are likely members of the Catholic clergy or “as terrorized by this most dangerous and egregious of Christian sects as Philomena herself.”

Smith, however, said that he “could see no reason for the movie’s existence other than to soar overhead in the guise of the sweet bird of comedy, then drop a surprise load of guano on Catholic institutions.”

“Like Coogan, I was raised Catholic and became an atheist, but I have too much respect for people of faith to be obnoxious about it,” he stated.

The “Philomena” distributor is owned by Harvey Weinstein, whom Time Magazine ranked as the most powerful man in Hollywood in 2012. Smith said that Weinstein has a “resume of anti-Catholic movies” including “The Magdalene Sisters,” “The Butcher Boy,” and “Priest.”

Smith said the latest film is playing to “mostly empty theaters,” despite receiving several positive reviews. He questioned the judgment on many movie critics.

“Film critics tend to give a free pass to obvious, trite, heavy-handed movies that light up the correct political-pleasure circuits in their brains,” he said. “I’m used to disagreeing with them.”

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Columnist: Pope's words rooted in Christ, not Marx

Washington D.C., Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Columnist Kathleen Parker has said free market-supporting conservatives are wrong to attack Pope Francis as a Marxist, saying his comments on economics are a call to remember the excluded.

“What is the successor to St. Peter supposed to do when he sees so much suffering even in free-market societies? Quote Ayn Rand?” Parker wrote, citing the 20th century atheist writer who defended capitalism claiming that selfishness is a virtue.

Parker’s Dec. 6 USA Today column said that every commentator “seems to have his own special version of Pope Francis,” with liberals seeing him as “a crusader for social justice,” while conservatives “fear he just might be a commie.”

She focused her remarks on several conservative commentators who reacted to the Pope’s comments on economics.

Radio host Rush Limbaugh contended that the Pope’s words about greed and inequality in his recent document “Evangelii Gaudium” were “pure Marxism” and “dramatically, embarrassingly, puzzlingly wrong.”

Parker countered that communist thinker Karl Marx and Pope Francis were coming from very different perspectives.

“Christianity is based on Christ, while Marxism advocates abolition of religion and acceptance of atheism. One receives grace and performs acts of charity; the other abjures grace and systematizes penury.”

The columnist also criticized Adam Shaw, a Catholic and news editor for who compared the Pope to President Obama, contending that both men “pander to enemies.”

Shaw said Catholics “should be suspicious when bastions of anti-Catholicism in the left-wing media are in love with him.” He claimed that the Pope “likes to apologize for the Catholic Church, thinking that the Church is at its best when it is passive and not offending anyone’s sensibilities.”

Parker questioned whether Pope Francis’ actions show passivity.

“The man is an activist, a street-worker, a foot-washer and an evangelizer. There’s nothing passive or pandering about him. And it would appear that Francis is quite willing to offend sensibilities.”

She said that the Pope’s criticism of “trickle-down” economics and its “absolute faith” that markets will be “humane and fair.”

While conservatives are correct that capitalism helps reduce poverty and oppose wealth redistribution, she said, Pope Francis is “challenging our idolatry of money and obsession with things … a cultural fascination that distracts us from the needy.”

Parker said Pope Francis’ opposition to “a throwaway culture” that easily ignores or discards the unborn or the elderly also warns the financial world about the “collateral human damage” of unregulated markets.

“This is by-the-book Christianity, hardly the moorings of heresy. Yet these Christian sentiments have sent some conservatives reeling to the fainting couch.”
Parker said that Francis is “the Pope, not the president,” and is urging people to follow their conscience.

“No one, Christian or otherwise, can escape the mirror he holds up, his eyes doubtless twinkling in anticipation of his next moonlight adventure, searching for souls in need.”

She said that the Pope “never proposes changing Church teachings, but merely suggests that the Church should be open to all.”

Parker cited his words that the Church is “a place for everyone, with all their problems.”

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Migration policies must respect families, European bishops say

Valletta, Malta, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Care for persons and families should be at the forefront of policies regarding migrants and refugees, the European bishops said in a recent meeting.

“The European policy and the policy of the individual Member States can only be based on respect for the individuals, and the recognition of the value and importance of the family,” they said in a concluding statement of a Dec. 2-4 meeting held in Malta.

Representatives of the European bishops met to discuss the pastoral care of migrants and refugees, creating a “proposal for a communion” that focused on the migrant as a person rather than as a “commodity” that one can “import and export at will.”

Rather, the issue of migration must be dealt with in a way that places the dignity of the family and the individual at the forefront of consideration, the bishops said.

“An adequate pastoral care of migrants cannot disregard their need for affection, for having a family and being part of a community.”

At the same time, the bishops stated, migration should take place legally so as to protect the “public order of the countries of destination.”

“A sound migration policy should encourage an active participation of migrants in society and facilitate their integration in the labor market.”

However, this responsibility does not lie only with the government, this bishops concluded.

“The Church has a vocation to be close, to reach out and accompany the journey of every human being, following her Lord.”

For years, the Church has been working to create strong ties between the country of origin and “communities of destination” for migrants through initiatives such as language courses and guest houses for families.

Migration proves to be a “real challenge” for Christian communities because it deals with one’s “ability to accept and deal with difference,” the meeting noted.

Instead of treating migration merely as a charity case, it should be welcomed as “an opportunity for enriching our ecclesial communion.”

The bishops met in Malta at the invitation of the Maltese bishops, Archbishop Paul Cremona of Malta and Bishop Mario Grech of Gozo. The meeting was organized by Director of the Malta Emigrants Commission, Monsignor Alfred Vella.

Cardinal Josip Bozanic, Archbishop of Zagreb presided over the meetings, and speakers included Laura Zanfrini of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan; Emanuel Mallia, Minister of Interior and National Security of the Republic of Malta; and Bishop Ciriaco Benavente Mateos of Albacete, president of the Spanish bishops' migration commission.

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Vatican launches global campaign to fight 'scandal' of hunger

Vatican City, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Caritas International has initiated their first global campaign to eradicate hunger, promoting the basic human right to food, and encouraging fraternal solidarity in ensuring that everyone has enough.

In a video message for the Dec. 10 press conference announcing the launching of the campaign, Pope Francis stated that “I am happy to announce to you the launch of a campaign against global hunger by our very own ‘Caritas Internationalis’ and to tell you that I intend to give my full support.”

The Pope highlighted that the work of Caritas, a relief agency of the Church, “is at the heart of the mission of the Church and of Her attention towards all those who suffer because of the scandal of hunger.”

Caritas specifically chose to launch the campaign, entitled "One human family, food for all," on Dec. 10 to correspond with Human Rights Day, because the initiative is based on our right to have adequate and nutritious food in order to live a dignified life.

One of the primary goals of the global effort, a confederation of 164 various organizations, is to completely eradicate hunger by 2025.

Operating on three different levels in order to achieve their goal of ending hunger, Caritas plans to first begin a global advocacy for the right to food, and to help foster national objectives for this which each individual country can decide based on their resources.

The charity organization is also encouraging each individual person to reflect on personal habits and attitudes regarding the use and waste of food, and to base future actions on the principles of justice and charity.

Cardinal Peter Kwodo Appiah Turkson, who was due to be present at the conference but is has travelled to South Africa for the funeral of former president Nelson Mandela, emphasized in a message read by a representative that the global problem of hunger is a “human issue.”

Pointing to the title of the campaign, the cardinal, who is the President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, observed that "when we live as one human family, there is food for all," adding that "hunger comes as a lack of human solidarity," and from a lack of acting "as brothers and sisters."

It is also a "moral issue," he continued, because it involves human freedom, and we are free to either “act” or to “ignore” the situation.

This campaign, Cardinal Turkson stressed, "is for food nutrition and food security, not against the hungry: let us eliminate hunger, not the hungry."

Pope Francis reflected in his video message on the feeding of the five thousand in the Gospel, stating that “when the Apostles said to Jesus that the people who had come to listen to his words were hungry, He invited them to go and look for food.”

However, “being poor themselves, all they found were five loaves and two fish,” he noted, pointing out that “with the grace of God, they managed to feed a multitude of people, even managing to collect what was left over and avoiding that it went to waste.”

“We are in front of a global scandal of around one billion – one billion people who still suffer from hunger today,” the Pope explained, stating that “we cannot look the other way and pretend this does not exist.”

“The food available in the world is enough to feed everyone. The parable of the multiplication of the loaves and fish teaches us exactly this: that if there is the will, what we have never ends.

Pope Francis then asked that all “make a space” in their hearts for the “emergency” of upholding the “God-given” right to food, appealing that each person “give a voice to all of those who suffer silently from hunger, so that this voice becomes a roar which can shake the world.”

“Let us pray that the Lord gives us the grace to envisage a world in which no one must ever again die of hunger.”

At the end of the press conference marking the launch of the campaign, the attendees travelled at noon to the Roman Church of Saint Francis in Repair to initiate the beginning of a “wave of prayer,” which will continue to travel around the world.

All have been invited to participate in the wave of prayer, or follow it on Facebook at “IAmCaritas,” or on twitter with the hashtag “#Food4All.”

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Thousands in Argentina celebrate Mary Undoer of Knots

Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Thousands of Argentineans gathered on Dec. 8 to celebrate the 17th anniversary of the enthroning of an image of Mary Undoer of Knots, a special favorite of Pope Francis.

The Marian devotion has grown in Argentina after then-Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires – now Pope Francis – brought a copy of the image back from Germany some 30 years ago.

The original painting, created by Johann Melchior Georg Schmidttner in 1700, is kept in St. Peter's Church in Augsburg, Germany.  

On Dec. 8, 1996, the parish of St. Joseph in the city of Agronomia, Argentina, received a copy of the painting by Betta de Berti.  

Each year, thousands of pilgrims visit the church in Agronomia to venerate the image.

Archbishop Mario Poli of Buenos Aires celebrated Mass at the parish on Dec. 8 and reflected on the meaning of the prayer, “Mother, help us not to be indifferent to the suffering of our brothers and sisters.”

The celebration also included a procession through the streets of the city with a replica of the painting.  

Catholics around the world have learned that Mary Undoer of Knots is the Pope's favorite Marian devotion.

An Ohio-based group has created a four foot-tall birthday card for the Holy Father featuring the image. More than 10,000 young people have signed the card, which will be sent to the Pope for his 77th birthday on Dec. 17.

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Focolare Movement asks that founder's cause be opened

Vatican City, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - The Focolare Movement, an organization dedicated to unity among all peoples, has requested that Bishop Raffaello Martinelli of Frascati begin an inquiry into the life of its founder, Chiara Lubich.

“This act invites us all to a life of greater holiness, lived day by day to contribute towards collective sanctity, that sanctity of the people so dear to Chiara's heart,” said Maria Voce, president of the movement, Dec. 7.

Lubich founded the Focolare Movement in 1943 “as a current of spiritual and social renewal,” according to its website.

Its purpose is to “build a more united world, following the inspiration of Jesus' prayer to the Father 'May they all be one,' respecting and valuing diversity,” while focusing on dialogue.

Lubich died in 2008 in Rocca di Papa, a town in the Diocese of Frascati, a Roman suburb. The local bishop's opening of her cause for canonization would involve an inquiry into her life and holiness through interviewing those who knew her and examining her writings.

A statement from the movement indicated that “both ordinary and prominent people, Catholics, members of other Churches, religions and cultures have expressed their hope that this process would be started for Chiara Lubich. It has been said that such recognition will encourage many to take a further personal, spiritual and moral commitment for the good of humanity.”

When Lubich died, Benedict XVI said her death “came at the end of a long and fruitful life marked by her tireless love for the abandoned Jesus.”

“I thank the Lord for the witness of her life, spent in listening to the needs of modern man in complete faithfulness to the Church and to the Pope...I hope that those who knew and met her, admiring the wonders that God achieved through her missionary ardor, may follow her footsteps and keep her charism alive.”

Another member of the Focolare Movement, Chiara Badano, was beatified in 2010.

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Do not fear the tender consolation of God, Pope says

Vatican City, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis dedicated his homily this morning to discussing the consolation of God, noting that it brings hope and that we should be open to the comfort that he desires to give each of us personally.

“May the Lord give to all of us the grace to not be afraid of the consolation of the Lord,” the Pope reflected in his Dec. 10 homily, “to be open: ask for it, seek it, because it is a consolation that will give us hope, and make us feel the tenderness of God the Father.”

Pope Francis offered his words to those who were present in the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse for his daily Mass.

Turning to the day’s first reading taken from the book of Isaiah in which God commands the prophet, “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” the Pope highlighted how the Lord approaches his people “to give them peace.”

Through this “work of consolation” which is strong enough that it “draws all things,” the Lord “re-creates things,” the pontiff explained. “The Church never tires of saying that this re-creation is more wonderful than the creation. The Lord re-creates more wonderfully.”

He also “visits his people,” the Pope continued, recalling how “the people of God always had this idea, this thought, that the Lord will come to visit them.”

Quoting the last words of Joseph to his brothers in the scriptures, “when the Lord will visit you, you must take my bones with you,” Pope Francis stated that “the Lord will visit His people. It is the hope of Israel.

“But He will visit them with this consolation. And the consolation,” he continued, “is this drawing all things, not once, but many times, with the universe and also with us.”

“When the Lord approaches,” noted the pontiff, “He gives us hope; the Lord draws us with hope. He always opens a door. Always.”

“In His nearness,” the Lord “gives us hope,” and “this hope that is a true strength in the Christian life. It is a grace, it is a gift,” the Pope stated.

“When a Christian forgets hope - or worse, loses hope - his life is senseless. It’s as if his life hit a wall: there’s nothing,” emphasized the pontiff, stating that “the Lord comforts us and draws us forward with hope.”

“And he does it with a special closeness to each one,” he observed, “because the Lord comforts His people and comforts each one of us.”

“It’s beautiful how today’s reading ends,” he reflected, repeating the words of Isaiah, “‘Like a shepherd He feeds His flock; in His arms He gathers the lambs, carrying them in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care.’”

“That image of carrying the lambs in His bosom, and leading the ewes with care: that is tenderness. The Lord comforts us with tenderness.”

“God who is powerful is not afraid of tenderness,” noted the Pope, “he becomes tender, becomes a child, becomes small.”

Turning to the Gospel reading in which Jesus leaves the 99 sheep to find the lost one, the pontiff explained that Jesus says tells us the same thing, he highlighted that “In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.”

In the eyes of God, stressed the Pope, “each one of us is very, very important, and he gives with tenderness.”

Making us “go forward” and “giving us hope,” he explained, was “the principle work of Jesus” during the forty days between his Resurrection and Ascension, adding that he was present “to comfort the disciples, to be close to them and give them consolation.”

“He was close to them and gave hope, He approached with tenderness. But we think of the tenderness He had with the Apostles, with Mary Magdalene, with those of Emmaus.”

The Lord, repeated the Pope, always “approached with tenderness,” citing Jesus’ words “give me something to eat,” and his instructions to Thomas to “Put your finger here” as examples.

“The Lord is always this way. This is the consolation of the Lord.”

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Central African Republic mired in violence amid threat of genocide

Bangui, Central African Republic, Dec 10, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) - A year of violence threatening the stability of the Central African Republic has escalated in recent weeks, leaving more than one million people in need amidst calls for foreign aid and warnings of the potential for genocide.

“In the capital Bangui, where I am, there has been shooting on the streets and people hacked to death with machetes,” said Renee Lambert, Catholic Relief Service's country manager in the Central African Republic.

“Tens of thousands of people are camped out at makeshift (internally displaced person) camps throughout the city or sheltering with host families, hoping that the arriving French troops can quell the violence.”
Lambert told CNA Dec. 8 that the “people of CAR have been living in a state of perpetual fear and uncertainty for almost a year now,” and the situation has become “desperate.”

The Central African Republic was engulfed in a war from 2004 to 2007, but violence broke out again in December, 2012. On March 24, Seleka rebels ousted the president and installed their own leader in a coup.

The Seleka have since been officially disbanded, but its members have not disarmed, and reports indicate that they are continuing to plunder the country through looting, torture and rape.

Of the country's population of some 4.5 million, more than 460,000 have been displaced from their homes by this year's violence, the U.N. estimates. Last week, 394 people were killed in the capital Bangui alone, according to the Red Cross.

Nearly three weeks ago, on Nov. 21, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius told television station France 2 that “the country is on the verge of genocide,” as the violence seems to have become increasingly sectarian, pitting Christians and Muslims against each other.
“The people of CAR need our help,” stressed Lambert. “We cannot turn away from what is happening here – it cannot be ignored … if we stand aside and watch we will never forgive ourselves.”

“History teaches us lessons and I only hope that this time we listen to our past. The situation is already horrific.”

Both France and the African Union have increased the presence of their forces in the nation, in an effort to contain the violence. Last week, France deployed 1,600 soldiers to the Central African Republic, and the African Union is increasing the size of its force in the country from 2,500 to 6,000.

Abbot Dieu-Béni Mbanga, who is chancellor of the Bangui archdiocese, explained in letters that violence erupted in earnest in the capital beginning Dec. 5.

“Some residents caught between warring parties stayed holed up at home; others found refuge in churches and with religious communities. By mid-morning, the parishes of St. John of Galabadja and Bangui’s Cathedral of Our Lady the Immaculate had taken in some 1,000 people.”

Four more parishes in the Bangui archdiocese received more than 10,000 additional displaced persons throughout the day, he reported. “Church facilities also took in the wounded who have been without medical care until now.”

Some parishes were threatened by ex-Seleka, and others came under fire. In a Dec. 7 letter, Abbot Mbanga wrote that “Church structures continue to take in people who fear for their lives, including some Muslims who are afraid they will be the targets of revenge attacks by Christians who themselves have been the victims of reprisals at the hand of other Muslims, Seleka militants or others.”

“It will take time, much time, for the Central African Republic to heal from these wounds.”

The latest spate of violence has not been restricted to Bangui; Lambert related that it “has also picked up in the northwest.” In Bossangoa, 200 miles north of the capital, “tensions have again escalated. Food is scarce, water also. People are living in really cramped conditions, sleeping where they can on mats on the ground.”

Catholic Relief Services and Caritas Bossangoa are providing support to more than 40,000 people who have been displaced and have sought refuge in at the Catholic mission in the city, as well as those who have taken refuge at “Catholic missions and schools” in Bouar.

“We've also been giving out food vouchers in the Lobaye Prefecture that people can exchange for local produce, so that needy families are fed and local markets are supported,” Lambert explained. “Seeds and tools were distributed earlier in the year so that people could once again grow their own produce – as most had lost out on a growing season due to the violence.”

Lambert also reflected that the fighting “has taken on unfortunate religious dimensions, dividing Christians and Muslims who have always lived together peacefully in the past.”

“We stand with those in need, whether they're Christian or Muslim,” she said.

In recent months, Central Africans have responded to the ex-Seleka by forming militias of their own, called anti-balaka, and violence has flared. The anti-balaka – meaning anti-machete in the Sango language – have been characterized by the BBC as “Christian self-defence militias” and as “local Christian militias” by The Independent.

In a Dec. 7 statement, the bishops of the Central African Republic stated, “we condemn the transgressions committed by both armed factions, the anti-balaka and the ex-Seleka.”

The bishops added that the fighting is not solely divided by religion, explaining that “not all anti-balaka are Christians and that not all Christians are anti-balaka,” and that “the same is true for ex-Seleka and Muslims.”

The Central African Republic is among the world's poorest countries, with extremely low human development and major human rights abuses; the U.N. has indicated it is in danger of becoming a failed state. More than one million are in urgent need of food aid.

It borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan, many of which have experienced dramatic upheavals of their own in recent years.

The violence has forced many nonprofits to withdraw to Bangui, leaving the remainder of the country helpless. Doctors Without Borders reported in July that the country's health care system has collapsed. In parts of the Central African Republic, malaria cases have doubled in the past year.

“The French and African Union forces are arriving and we just hope that order can be restored, and that people can live in peace once again,” Lambert reflected.

“This beautiful country and its people need – and deserve – our help.”

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