Archive of March 18, 2014

Boko Haram violence continues in attacks on barracks, school

Abuja, Nigeria, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Hundreds of militants believed to be members of the Islamist group Boko Haram attacked an army barracks in Nigeria March 14, the latest event in the country’s years of violence from the group.

The army said it had repelled the attack on the barracks in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, in Borno state.

“They set many houses on fire and killed innocent people,” Jamila Yusuf, a local resident, told the Nigerian newspaper Daily Trust.

A military spokesman said the attack was an effort to free fellow members who were imprisoned there, the BBC reports. One military source told Agence France Presse that the attack freed dozens of suspected militants, though Nigeria’s defense ministry did not confirm or deny the report.

Eyewitnesses said there were deaths on both sides. The military said attackers suffered “heavy casualties,” while four soldiers were wounded.

In Adamawa state, also in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram militants killed 37 in an attack on a town and neighboring villages Feb. 27.

Two days earlier, the group attacked a boarding school in Yobe state, to the west of Borno. At least 29 students were killed at the secondary school. According to the BBC, the militants told female students were gathered together and told to abandon their education and to marry.

Boko Haram, which means “Western education is sinful,” launched an uprising in 2009 and hopes to impose sharia law on Nigeria. It has targeted security forces, politicians, Christian minorities, and moderate Muslims in Nigeria’s predominantly Muslim north.

In February, militants killed Mohammed Awwal Albani, an Islamic scholar, after he said Boko Haram’s actions were un-Islamic.

Boko Haram’s attacks have killed thousands since 2009; according to the BBC, they have killed 500 in 2014 alone. The U.N. estimates that the attacks have led to more than 470,000 internally displaced persons in Nigeria.

In January Boko Haram members attacked a Catholic parish during Mass, firing guns into the congregation, setting off explosives and taking hostages.

In February, Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Jos lamented that government authorities are unable to stop the violence. He said he suspects that groups outside Nigeria are offering “sophisticated assistance” to Boko Haram.

The U.S. recognized Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization in November 2013, after a lengthy advocacy effort from human rights and Christian groups.

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Vatican designates Kansas church as a minor basilica

Victoria, Kan., Mar 18, 2014 (CNA) - Capuchin Father Jeff Ernst’s voice leapt with emotion when he heard the news: St. Fidelis Church would be named a minor basilica.

“It’s exciting,” he said from his office at St. John the Evangelist Parish in Lawrence. “The state of Kansas doesn’t have any.”

Bishop Edward Weisenburger received the news from the Vatican last week that the diocese’s application to name St. Fidelis a minor basilica had been granted. He will dedicate the church as a minor basilica on June 7.

“This is a great day for the people of Victoria but an equally great day for the people of the Diocese of Salina,” the bishop said. “St. Fidelis Church has long been a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Indeed, many have been drawn to the mystery and love of God by spending time in this inspiring church.”

Father Ernst thought much the same when he was walking through the front doors one day.

“This could become a minor basilica,” Father Ernst said to himself.

“I thought about it for a few days and then ran it by the bishop, and he really liked the idea,” Father Ernst said.

After receiving permission from his Capuchin provincial to proceed, he contacted people at the most recently named minor basilica in the United States, the Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton, Ohio, to inquire about how to do it.

Bishop Weisenburger had just been named bishop of Salina, and when he traveled to Rome with other bishops from the region to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, he told Father Ernst he would check with Vatican officials about the process.

“He found out they were discouraging applications,” Father Ernst said, but when the bishop sometime later met with other U.S. bishops, they encouraged him to proceed.

“He said, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Father Ernst said.

The Capuchin priest had only been at the Victoria parish since August 2011, and with his parish council’s support, he began assembling the information he needed.

The application asks for specific information about the structure of the church, the participation of the parishioners and the art and architecture.

“One thing people at Canton said was send lots of pictures, so we did,” Father Ernst said.

It took him about six months to complete the application, which then was sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for its approval. By September 2013, it was on its way to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments at the Vatican.

Father Ernst was transferred by his order to the Lawrence parish shortly before that. The new pastor at Victoria, Capuchin Father John Schmeidler, too, was excited to hear the news.

“The people really do take great pride in the church and its upkeep,” he said. “I think it’s because of their love for the church and all that it stands for.

“Being created a basilica, for them, I think, will elevate the sanctity and holiness of the church and help them to know that even better,” he added.

It’s likely to increase the number of people visiting the church, as well.

The church’s 141-foot twin towers are easily seen from nearby Interstate 70, and about 16,000 people visit it each year.

Many, of course, are tourists, but for the Catholic faithful, visiting a basilica can provide them with a plenary indulgence — the removal of all temporal punishment due for the sins committed up to that time.

“The first thing I thought of was this will get even more people interested in the church,” Father Schmeidler said.

“The real reason for doing this was for the Glory of God,” Father Ernst added. “A lot of people who visit the church are very inspired. That’s the main part of doing this, that more people would be inspired. They come to the church and sometimes they return to God because of that visit.”

Bishop Weisenburger called the designation “an incredible blessing for us all.”

“The Holy See’s designation as a basilica highlights not only the architectural and historical significance of the church but also the faith life it has nurtured for well over a century,” he said. “I would add too that in honoring this beloved church, an honor is likewise extended to those who sacrificed for its construction and upkeep through the years.”

Posted with permission from The Register, official publication of the Diocese of Salina, Kan.

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South Sudanese diocese evacuated due to violence, looting

Malakal, South Sudan, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - The South Sudanese Malakal diocese has been evacuated as many areas there have been “completely destroyed” following violence committed by rebel forces, the diocesan administrator says.

“We have lost everything – all our possessions. Many of our churches, homes and so on have been razed to the ground – and everything has been looted,” Msgr. Roko Taban, administrator of the Diocese of Malakal, told Aid to the Church in Need March 13.

South Sudan was formed in 2011 when the region gained independence from the Republic of Sudan following a 20-year-long civil war. Recently, the nascent country erupted in violence again as forces loyal to South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and those allied behind former vice president Riek Machar have come into conflict.

The conflict has led to at least 739,000 becoming internally displaced, and 123,000 refugees.

While a ceasefire was signed Jan. 23, within weeks fighting broke again. Both sides accuse each other of initiating the renewed violence, which began in Malakal Feb. 18. Patients in hospital in the city have been murdered in their beds, according to Doctors without Borders.

Msgr. Taban said there have been mass evacuations in the states of Unity, Upper Nile, and Jonglei. There has been mass looting and attacks on both hospitals and pharmacies, and malaria and diarrhea are on the rise.

All diocesan priests and women religious are fleeing to the south.

“Nobody (is) in Malakal. They ran for their lives. It was not possible for anybody to stay. The diocese is completely empty. We have lost everything as a diocese … all documents have gone. No vehicles. There is absolutely nothing left.”

When looting came to Malakal, many of the city’s 250,000 fled “to the bush,” he said, to villages now overwhelmed with the displaced.

Msgr. Taban and the priests of the diocese are now staying at a seminary in Juba, the South Sudanese capital. Four priests remained in the diocese, but were waiting to be evacuated.

He said his priests are in need of a food supply for six months, prayer books, and vestments, to replace what had to be left behind in Malakal.

In 2010, the Malakal diocese was served by 12 diocesan priests, and 10 religious. It’s 876,000 Catholics consituted nearly 20 percent of the population. Msgr. Taban has been administrator of the diocese since May 2009, when its last bishop, Vincent Mojwok Nyiker, retired.

A Comboni missionary who also fled Malakal, Sr. Elena Balatti, told Fides the city is “completely deserted, although our safety was guaranteed. Staying there would have been completely useless because we would not have had anyone to assist. The rebels are the only ones present.”

Msgr. Taban appealed for the Malakal diocese, saying he and his people “need special attention of solidarity and love.”

“We are miserable. Kindly remember us in your prayers.”

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Science historians critique new 'Cosmos' series

Washington D.C., Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Scholars of the history of science have discussed the merits and shortcomings of the new television series “Cosmos,” saying that the first episode's discussion of Church history strayed from historical facts.

"I thought it was wonderfully done for the most part," said Robert Goulding, associate professor at Notre Dame University in South Bend, who studies the history of science, humanism, and magic in a March 14 interview with CNA.

“However, I'm surprised by the standards of the historical segment.”

The cable television series "Cosmos," narrated by physicist Niel DeGrasse Tyson, is a remake of the 1980s public television show of the same name narrated by Carl Sagan.

The show focuses on the universe and the galaxies, stars and planets within. However, it came under criticism from some commentators for its cartoon presentation of the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher and former Dominican friar in the show's first episode.
Bruno was a 16th century thinker who came under investigation by the Inquisition for heresy and was burned at the stake in 1600.

During the cartoon segment in “Cosmos," the show stated that Bruno was a "free-thinker" spreading a "gospel of infinity," and that he was ousted from a position at Oxford, subjected to the Inquisition and burned at the stake, because of his beliefs about the infinite nature of the universe.

Notre Dame professor emeritus Michael Crowe, who studies the history of astronomy, praised the new show's "remarkable" graphics, but said some of the first episode's features were "needlessly inserted" into "what could have been a wonderful introduction to science, especially astronomy."

“Nonetheless, from its very first minute, I was put off,” Crowe told CNA.

The show's discussion of Bruno, Crowe said, cast him as the "hero of the first half of the show."

The show dramatically says "there was only one man who had the notion of an infinite universe filled with inhabited planets" and he was in prison. Instead, Crowe said, this idea had been promoted as early as the fifth century before Christ.

"Moreover, the new Cosmos shows a serious disregard to historical information" through its graphic animation of Bruno being burned at the stake "by the Catholic Church partly because of Bruno’s advocacy of extraterrestrials."

“What seems most probable from what records exist, is that the inquisitors were above all distressed by Bruno’s denial of such fundamental Christian doctrines as the divinity of Christ.”

Because the records of his trial were lost, Crowe said, "there is no way directly to show that his belief in extraterrestrials was of serious concern to the inquisitors.”

However, other theologians and philosophers such as Nicholas of Cusa, who later was named a cardinal, advocated for the belief in life outside of Earth.

Crowe also critiqued the show's opening statement, taken from the first series, that the “cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be,” seeming to promote a "materialist philosophy" that does not take into account spiritual roles or life. The narrator, Crowe said, "stresses that the show will deal with matters of science" that can be empirically verified.

"He does not seem to realize that the opening statement in both versions of Cosmos is not empirically verifiable."

The second episode, however, "seemed free of the scientism and gratuitous religion-bashing present in the first show," Crowe said, and he looked forward to seeing "whether the later shows give increased attention to including accurate historical information."
Goulding commented that Bruno's inclusion in the first episode was important because "they were trying to talk about the infinity of the universe and trying to start accustoming the viewer's mind" to the enormity of the universe and how "difficult of an idea this was for people to come to terms with" over the centuries.   

However, the show misrepresented the historical facts surrounding Bruno's work, trial, and execution. Goulding said that during his time at Oxford, Bruno was not unveiling to hostile authorities a vision of the universe where the Earth revolved around the Sun.

During late 16th and early 17th centuries, he said, England and Northern Europe were already very informed and supportive of the heliocentric model of the solar system proposed by Copernicus. It seems from the historical records, Goulding said, that "Bruno knew nothing about Copernicanism before coming to England."

Instead, history suggests that Bruno left Oxford not because of a battle with academic and religious authorities, but because he "seemed to have made a bit of a fool of himself."

During his time at Oxford, "Bruno started giving these lectures about Copernicanism, but also about magic." He was also caught  plagiarizing the work of other scientists in public lectures, and Bruno "started writing these very angry essays" after he was privately confronted by other Oxford scholars.

“Bruno was called out doing something a little bit dishonest.”

Goulding also said it was Bruno's theological beliefs, rather than his beliefs about the universe, that were troubling to the inquisitors in Rome. Bruno "doesn't seem to believe in the divinity of Jesus in quite the way that the Church talked about," he explained, noting that Church officials were concerned about his time in England and if he received Communion from Protestants while there.

"They didn't do it to him because of his beliefs in astronomy."

He also questioned the first episode's framing of Bruno's trial as a case of the Church versus free thought.

"It seems indisputable," Goulding said, "that a spirit of reaction does take place within the Church" in the 17th century because of the Protestant reformation that led to harsh treatment, torture, and execution of religious dissidents.

However, "the Church was not a single monolithic entity," Goulding said, pointing out that there was intellectual questioning during that period, and that intellectual thought was supported from within the Church. "Galileo's closest collaborators were monks and priests," he stated.

"The writers seem to drawing upon a very 19th century bed of thought," Goulding said of the show's framing, in which "there's science on one side, religion on the other. And that's not true either."

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John XXIII a representation of goodness, cardinal recounts

Vatican City, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - During a recent interview, Cardinal Angelo Comastri reflected on scenes from the life of Pope John XXIII, revealing the pontiff’s deep spiritual nature, as well as his great kindness towards others.

“If in John Paul II the key word is courage of the faith, in John XXIII the key word is the strength of goodness,” Cardinal Comastri told CNA in a March 10 interview.

Cardinal Comastri is the President of the Fabric of Saint Peter, Archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica, and Vicar General for the Vatican City State. He worked alongside both Pope John XXIII and Bl. John Paul II, who are slated to be canonized in April, for many years as a member of the Roman Curia.

Recounting the day when John XXIII was elected Pope, the cardinal recalled that when the new pontiff appeared on the main balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to greet the crowds, he could hear their voices but could not see them due to the brightness of the lights.

“He said it himself – he heard the voice of the people but he couldn't see anything,” the cardinal observed, recalling that “He gave a blessing but when he returned to the doorway he said: ‘I heard the voices but I couldn't see anyone.’”

“It was a lesson for me, if I want to see the faces of my brothers, I have to turn off the lights of my pride.”

“Right away it was a wise reading of the fact of how John XXIII was,” Cardinal Comastri noted, emphasizing that the new Supreme Pontiff “immediately… communicated with acts of kindness.”

Giving an example to illustrate this point, the cardinal brought to mind John XXIII’s first Christmas as Pope in 1958, explaining that a few days before he spoke with his secretary, Msgr. Loris Capovilla, who was recently ordained a cardinal by Pope Francis at the age of 98.

During the conversation, the cardinal continued, the Pope told Msgr. Capovilla “Listen, Fr. Loris, my mother taught me that for the holidays we must not only go to Mass, but we must also do works of mercy.”

When the secretary asked what he wanted to do, John XXIII replied that “The day of Christmas I will go to the children in Bambino Gesu hospital. And December 26, I'm going to visit the prisoners of the Regina Coeli prison.”

Noting that it was the first time a Pope had traveled to the hospital, Cardinal Comastri explained that there was “great excitement” when the Pope left, and that when he arrived, “the children all jumped from their beds to go and meet the Pope and the Pope greeted them all good-naturedly as Jesus with the children.”

However, seeing that there was one child who remained in his bed, the cardinal revealed that the Pope “was the one to approach the child” who, when he sensed someone close, stretched out and touched the pontiff, asking “Are you the Pope?”

When John XXIII replied with a “yes,” Cardinal Comastri recalled that the child told him “I am happy but I can't see you because I am blind,” to which the Pope responded by “lowering his eyes” and calling the child by his name, saying “Carmine, we are all a little blind; we pray to the Lord to give us the sight of the heart to recognize ourselves as brothers.”

The cardinal continued the narrative, explaining that the next day when Pope John XXIII went to the Roman prison Regina Coeli, he discarded his prepared speech and spoke to the inmates “with the heart.”

Reflecting on how a member of his own family had been imprisoned when he was a child, the pontiff expressed that it had been a difficult and emotional situation, and that although he could keep the experience to himself, he shared it in order to put the prisoners “more at ease,” the cardinal explained.

Quoting the Pope’s words to the inmates, Cardinal Comastri remembered how he told them that “now you need to rebuild your lives and you need to do one thing: eliminate the word despair and prepare yourselves to spend your lives doing good because this is also the Father's house and you are also sons of God.”

Upon hearing this, the cardinal recounted that one of the prisoners broke through the security barrier, running and throwing himself on his knees at the Pope’s feet, asking “Holy Father, I am a delinquent, is there also hope for me?”

Pope John XXIII replied, the cardinal noted, by affirming that “there is hope for all, there is also hope for you,” and telling him “do not worry.”

On the way back to the Vatican, Cardinal Comastri brought to mind that the Pope once again turned to his secretary, Msgr. Capovilla, and said “Fr. Loris, these are the true joys of being Pope, these are the joys of the believer.”

“That's the life of Pope John,” the cardinal observed, adding that “it’s full of these small flowers, strength and goodness.”

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Pope Francis warns against the disguise of hypocrites

Vatican City, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - In his daily homily Pope Francis cautioned against those who appear to be holy but are in fact self-absorbed, explaining that Lent is a time a time of purification which allows us to grow closer to the Lord.

“The sign that we are far from the Lord is hypocrisy. The hypocrite does not need the Lord, he is saved by himself – so he thinks – and he disguises himself as a saint,” the Pope observed in his March 18 daily Mass.

Speaking to those present in the chapel of the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse, the pontiff began his homily by reflecting on the day’s First Reading, taken from the book of Isaiah, in which the prophet pleas for Sodom and Gomorrah to convert, and warning that they will be “consumed” if they resist.

Highlighting “conversion” as a key word for Lent, the Pope explained that Isaiah’s prophesy to these “sinful cities” shows us that all “need to make a change of life” and take a “good look into our soul.”

Explaining how God is always “waiting for us in order to forgive us,” the pontiff cautioned that our approach must be “sincere,” and warned against the danger of being hypocrites, like the Pharisees in the Gospel.

“What makes people hypocrites?” he asked, observing that “they disguise themselves, they disguise themselves as good people: they make themselves up like little holy cards, looking up at heaven as they pray, making sure they are seen – they believe they are more righteous than others,” but really “they despise others.”

“‘Mah,’ they say, ‘I’m very Catholic, because my uncle was a great benefactor, my family is this, I’m that…I’ve learned...I know this bishop, this cardinal, this priest...I am this or that...’ They think they are better than others,” the Pope continued, emphasizing that “this is hypocrisy.”

The Lord, he noted, tells us something different, saying “‘No, not that.’ No one is justified by himself. We all need to be justified. And the only one who justifies us is Jesus Christ.”

For this reason it is essential that we go to the Lord, he observed, so that we do not become “Christians in disguise,” and that “when the appearance passes, one can see the reality” that we “are not Christians.”

Asking those in attendance what is “the yardstick” used to ensure that we draw close to God, he echoed the words of Isaiah, stating “Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil; learn to do good.”

One sign which helps us to know whether or not we are going along the “good path” the Pope noted, is to “Redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow,” which are instructions Isaiah also gave to Sodom and Gomorrah.

“Take care of the neighbor: the sick, the poor, the needy, the ignorant,” the pontiff continued, emphasizing that “This is the yardstick,” and that “the hypocrites do not know how to do this, they can’t, because they are so full of themselves that they are blind on account of watching others.”

“When one walks a little bit and comes closer to the Lord, the light of the Lord makes him see these things and he goes to help the brothers,” the Pope explained, adding that “this is the sign, this is the sign of conversion.”

Pope Francis also observed that “this is not the whole of conversion,” but that one must also have an “encounter with Jesus Christ,” and highlighted that we know we are close to Jesus when we care for the poor and the sick, as he teaches us.

Concluding his reflections, the pontiff stated that Lent is a time “to adjust life, to fix life, to change life, to draw closer to the Lord.”

“The sign that we are far from the Lord is hypocrisy,” he noted, repeating that “the sign that we are drawing closer to the Lord with repentance, asking for forgiveness, is that we care for the needy brethren.”

“May the Lord give us all light and courage: light to know what’s happening within us, and courage to convert, to draw closer to the Lord. It is beautiful to be close to the Lord.”

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Benedict XVI sends Pope commentary on early interview

Rome, Italy, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Former Pope Benedict XVI sent a four-page commentary to Pope Francis on the September 2013 interview he granted to Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, according to Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the Pontifical Household.

The Italian news agency Korazym reports that in an interview with the German television station ZDF, Archbishop Ganswein – who is also Benedict XVI’s secretary – said the retired Pope wrote the commentary at the request of Pope Francis.

“When Father Spadaro (the director of La Civilta Cattolica) delivered the first copy of this interview, (Pope) Francis gave it to me and asked that I take it to Benedict,” said Archbishop Ganswein, speaking to ZDF on March 13, the first anniversary of Pope Francis’ election.

“Look, the first page after the index is blank,” Pope Francis reportedly told him, instructing that Benedict “should write down all the criticism that comes to mind and afterwards give it to me.”

Archbishop Ganswein said that he went to see Benedict XVI and deliver a copy of the interview.  “Three days later, he gave me four pages – not written by hand of course, but dictated to Sister Brigit in a letter.”

“He did his homework,” the archbishop said of the former pontiff. “He read it and responded to the request of his successor, offering some reflections and some observations about certain statements or questions which he thought could perhaps be developed later on another occasion.”

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Cardinal encourages Lenten prayers for Venezuela

Caracas, Venezuela, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA) - Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino of Caracas, Venezuela, called on the faithful to intensify their prayers during Lent for God to rid Venezuela of violence, as the death toll from recent protests continues to rise.

“I want to ask you to pray a lot for Venezuela this Lent, that Venezuelans can resolve our problems peacefully, with everyone seeking the common good,” Cardinal Urosa said in his Lenten message.

“Regardless of the political sympathies of each person, Catholics need to banish hatred, bitterness and revenge from our hearts.”

Student protests began across the nation's cities early in February but escalated when three people were killed. The National Guard has been criticized for an unnecessarily strong response to demonstrators, who are urging greater protection of freedom of speech, better security and an end to goods shortages. The current reported death toll stands at 29.

The cardinal noted that the Venezuelan bishops have made continuous calls to stop the escalation of violence.  

“We reject violence, wherever it comes from,” he said. “We call on the government to respect the right of citizens to protest, and we ask that it respond to the requests of those who are protesting and provide solutions to the root of the problems.”

Cardinal Urosa added that the bishops have called for sanctions against those who have broken the law during protests.

He also exhorted Venezuelans to fulfill their civil duties “in accord with our consciences, but let us do so keeping in mind what the Lord says in the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father’.”

“Let us remove hatred and bitterness from our hearts and let us truly live in love. No to violence!” he emphasized.

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Pope assures Ukrainian people of his solidarity, prayers

Vatican City, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - In a March 17 meeting with the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Pope Francis expressed the Holy See’s commitment to building peace amid the country’s political crisis.

Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halyc traveled to Rome for a private encounter with Vatican officials to discuss the political unrest in the country and Crimeans’ vote to join Russia.

Crimea, a southern peninsula of Ukraine, has been occupied by pro-Russian forces since Feb. 27. A majority of the population is ethnic Russian, and in a referendum held Sunday, 97 percent of voters backed splitting from Ukraine to join Russia.

On Tuesday, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty to absorb the peninsula into Russia. Shortly thereafter, one Ukrainian military officer was killed and another was wounded in an attack on a base in the Crimean capital Simferopol.

In a statement released by the information department of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, it was noted that Pope Francis is following the events unfolding in Ukraine “with great attention.”

“The Holy Father expressed words of solidarity to the Ukrainian people for the suffering and the dangers that is now before them.”

He has assured the Ukrainian people that the Holy See “will do everything possible for peace in Eastern Europe, especially to avoid any escalation of the conflict,” the statement reports.

Meeting with Pope Francis yesterday morning, Archbishop Shevchuk also spoke with Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin later that afternoon, recounting the events which have taken place over the last three months.

During the discussion Archbishop Shevchuk highlighted that “the mission of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has always been to be with the people and among the people,” which is “why the priests were in Maidan Square with the people” during the deadly protests which took place from November through February.

Also discussed in Archbishop Shevchuk’s meeting with the Pope was the role of the Council of Churches and religious organizations throughout Ukraine in the building of peace in the country.

Recalling the persecution of the Church during the Soviet era, the archbishop relayed to the Pope that at the time “the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was able to survive only thanks to unity with the Successor of Peter.”

Pope Francis assured the archbishop that “the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church will never be lacking the protection of the Holy See,” and concluded the meeting by imparting his apostolic blessing to all the Ukrainian people.

Protests in the capital Kyiv began in November, when the government announced it would not sign a major economic partnership agreement with the European Union, in favor of a $15 billion bailout agreement with Russia. The protests culminated in the death of more than 70 persons in February, and the flight of the country’s pro-Russia president.

On Feb. 23, pro-Western Oleksander Turchynov was appointed acting president by parliament. Subsequently, pro-Russian forces effectively took control of Crimea, which had been transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 under the Soviet Union.

Kyiv and Western governments have refused to acknowledge as legal Crimea’s union with Russia, placing travel bans and asset freezes on some Russian government officials.

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Ukrainian Catholics experiencing 'total persecution' in Crimea

Kyiv, Ukraine, Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - As the Russian president signed a bill to annex Crimea Tuesday, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the peninsula has been experiencing what a Church official calls “total persecution.”

“At this moment all Ukrainian Greek Catholic life in Crimea is paralyzed,” Fr. Volodymyr Zhdan, chancellor of the Stryi eparchy in western Ukraine, told CNA March 18.
From 2006 to 2010, Fr. Zhdan served as chancellor of the Odesa-Krym exarchate, which encompassed both the mainland port city of Odesa and the Crimean peninsula.

Since late February the peninsula has seen the emergence of pro-Russian troops, who have taken control of its airports, parliament, and telecommunication centers.

Referring to the kidnapping of three Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests in Crimea by pro-Russian forces over the weekend, Fr. Zhdan stressed that one such case could be called a mistake, but that “multiple kidnappings are not an accident.”

On March 15 Fr. Mykola Kvych, a naval chaplain stationed in Sevastopol, was detained immediately after celebrating a “parastas,” a memorial prayer service for the dead. The following day Fr. Bohdan Kosteskiy of Yevpatoria and Fr. Ihor Gabryliv of Yalta were also reported missing.

Later that night all three were said to be alive and safe, with Fr. Kvych confirming that he had escaped to the mainland of Ukraine with the help of parishioners.

Fr. Kvych told the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church’s information department that he was held and questioned for eight hours by representatives of the Crimean self-defense force and Russian intelligence officers.

According to Fr. Kvych, they accused him of “provocations” and of supplying the Ukrainian navy with weapons. Fr. Kvych maintained that he helped organize the delivery of food to a blockaded naval base, and that he gave two bulletproof vests to journalists.

Upon seeing a Ukrainian flag at his home and portraits of Roman Shukhevych and Stepan Bandera – Ukrainian nationalists who fought against both the Nazis and the Soviets in the 1940s and 50s -- inside, Fr. Kvych’s captors accused him of being in the “SS Army,” a reference to Nazi Germany.

Followers of Bandera are colloquially called “Banderites,” a label that has been heavily circulated by Russian authorities and media in recent months and whose reported presence in Ukraine, many analysts say, has been used to justify Russian intervention in the country.

Fr. Kvych has been charged with “extremism,” which in the Russian Federation can carry a sentence of up to 15 years in prison.

Fr. Kvych does not know how the trial will be conducted, since the national status of Crimea is in dispute.

A referendum was held in the territory March 16 regarding union with Russia. Crimean authorities claim that 97 percent of voters favor seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia, and March 18 Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Crimean leaders signed a treaty declaring the territory absorbed by Russia.

Western nations and the government in Kyiv have condemned both the referendum and the annexation.

In addition to the arrests in Crimea, several other problems at Ukrainian Greek Catholic Churches throughout the country have been reported in recent days.

According to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, an important 130-foot electrical cable was stolen from a small chapel in the Kherson region north of Crimea over the weekend. On March 15 a parish in Kolomyya was vandalized and another in Dora was burned to the ground, reportedly from arson. Both damaged parishes are in the Ivano-Frankivsk region, which borders Romania in the west of Ukraine.

In Crimea, clergy have received threatening phone calls and messages. At the home of one apprehended priest, a note was left that read this should be “a lesson to all Vatican agents.”

“This is not new,” Bishop Vasyl Ivasyuk, who served as Exarch of Odesa-Krym from 2003 to 2014, told CNA.

“During Soviet times, we were always accused of being ‘agents’ of the Vatican,” Bishop Ivasyuk continued. “Of course not all people in Crimea think we are spies, but there is a very active pro-Russian group there that does.”

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church was heavily persecuted during the Soviet era; it was considered illegal, and operated completely underground until 1989.

“The Church emerged from the underground 25 years ago, having been the largest illegal church in the world for 45 years prior,” Bishop Boris Gudziak, Eparch of Paris, explained to CNA last month.

“The UGCC was the biggest social body of opposition to the Soviet ideology and totalitarian system. It was completely illegal, but in the catacombs, it was spiritually free because it was not collaborating.”

Bishop Ivasyuk confirmed that such freedom is important in Crimea, where the relationship between the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the local government has always been complicated.

“Many Crimeans respect the UGCC for not taking part in elections, for staying out of politics,” he said. “Our priests do not run for political office and this has granted them a kind of moral authority.”

Of the five priests normally serving Ukrainian Greek Catholics in the peninsula, two reportedly remain.

When asked their motivation for staying, Bishop Ivasyuk explained that they want to be with the people as long as possible.

“Life is the most important thing, so we shouldn’t go looking for the mouth of the lion … but we’ll stay with the people wherever they are.”

On March 18 the Department of Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture issued a statement condemning the persecution of clergy in Crimea.

“Recently, in the Autonomous Republic of Crimea cases of persecution of the clerics of various denominations have been documented. There has been an unprecedented violation of rights in the field of freedom of conscience and religion,” the statement read.

“We demand there be a stop to the practice of terror and for rights and liberties to be respected.”

With the signing of the Russia-Crimea treaty, it is unclear what will happen to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in the region. It is estimated there are roughly 5,000 Ukrainian Greek Catholics on the peninsula.

“What we saw this weekend was a disturbing signal of a future political direction,” Fr. Zhdan concluded.

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LA archbishop blesses immigration reform advocates going to Vatican

Los Angeles, Calif., Mar 18, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles gave his blessing Sunday to a group of children and immigration reform advocates who are traveling to Rome to ask Pope Francis for his help and benediction.

“Father, we ask You to bless our brothers and sisters, as they begin their long journey to Rome,” Archbishop Gomez prayed March 16. “Help them to walk with Jesus. Give them courage and joy as they stand with Your poor in their struggle for dignity and justice.”

“Teach us all to love others as You love them. Grant that we might be holy as You are holy,” he continued, at the closing Mass of the 2014 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress at the Anaheim Convention Center.

“And guide us to reform our immigration policies, so that our country may live up to its beautiful promises of liberty and justice for all.”

The group includes children whose families face the threat of deportation from the U.S. because they do not have proper documentation.

According to the Orange County Register, the group has chosen 10-year-old Jersey Vargas, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, as their representative to the Pope. Vargas, who was born in the U.S. and will be making her first flight on an airplane, wants to give the Holy Father a card and talk to him.

“We are not criminals. My parents came to this country for a better life. But my dad is in immigration detention and I'm afraid he will be deported. I am going to tell the Pope I feel very sad,” she told the Orange County Register.

Organizers say they are seeking a private audience with the Pope, to deliver hundreds of letters from children whose families face the threat of deportation. They want to ask him to address the question of immigration with U.S. president Barack Obama when the two leaders meet later this month.

During his homily at the Mass, Archbishop Gomez said, “the Church’s mission is a mission of mercy – because mercy is the face of God and the heart of the Gospel.”

He reflected on the missionary theme of “setting the world on fire,” connecting it to the Lenten path of continuous renewal.

“Our Christian life is a journey of conversion, of transfiguration,” he said, pointing to the Gospel passage in which Christ is transfigured and God’s glory is revealed: “for one brief moment, we see our destiny – and the path we are meant to follow in our lives.”

As Christians, we must also seek to have our lives transfigured to be more like Jesus, Archbishop Gomez said.

“That’s our vocation. Our calling. That’s why God made us! To be transformed and transfigured. To become more like Jesus every day of our lives, until one day we are raised up in the Resurrection, when he will change our earthly body to be like his own glorious body.”

Since his election a year ago, Pope Francis has been teaching us by his example how to be continually transformed by the Beatitudes, the archbishop said.

“He is calling us to be poor in spirit – to live with less so we can give more to our neighbors in need. He is calling us to hunger for justice – to reach out to the poor and vulnerable and to build a society where everyone lives with the dignity that God intends.”

Archbishop Gomez encouraged participants to “pray for the courage to be missionary disciples who ‘give our faith an essence through deeds.’”

“My brothers and sisters, our society needs more justice and more mercy. And that’s our mission. The mission of the Church.”

The archbishop recommended the Beatitudes as a path for Christian life, pointing to the examples of the saints as well as modern figures such as César Chavez, the son of immigrants who grew up picking crops in California and became a “great civil rights leader who fought for farm workers and for Latinos in our country.”

“César Chavez was a man of prayer and man of peace. Learning about his life tells me that he had a deep devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe and that he tried to live the Beatitudes in his daily life,” Archbishop Gomez said. “He fought for justice for his people — using the spiritual weapons of prayer, fasting, and self-sacrifice; and he always urged non-violence.”

“I’ve been also thinking a lot about César Chavez these days, as we continue to struggle for immigration reform. To me, justice for immigrants is one of the great human rights issues of our time.”

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