Jerusalem, Israel, May 30, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
The auxiliary bishop of Jerusalem described the recent prayer shared between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew I as a moving event, predicting future blessings from the encounter.
“Really, it was moving. It was very moving and emotional,” Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem told CNA May 25, explaining that he had never witnessed anything like it before.
“The humility of the Pope, the friendship which was born between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, the atmosphere, the nature of people present of the Holy Sepulcher. It was historical in all ways.”
Bishop Shomali, who was present during the communal prayer at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher May 25 during the Pope's trip to the Holy Land earlier this week, said that the importance of that moment in terms of unity amongst the varying rites was never doubted.
“The fruits are unpredictable – we don't know what it will result in,” he said. “But at least something will come out of it,” the bishop added, noting that one concrete hope is “that the unification of the Calendar of the Easter should be an immediate result of this.”
Sunday's meeting between the Pope and the Patriarch marks the 50th anniversary of the meeting between Paul VI and the then Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem on Jan. 6, 1964.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew wished to commemorate the historical encounter again in Jerusalem, thus pushing to foster the ecumenical path toward the unity of Christians.
Housing both the tomb of Christ and the site of his crucifixion, the Holy Sepulcher has been a source of conflict among varying Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Armenians, as to who claimed property rights over the holy sites.
These rights as are currently under negotiation between the Vatican and the State of Israel.
Implemented during the 17th and 18th centuries in order to relieve tensions surrounding ownership, a “status quo” currently dictates the times and durations of events and liturgies among the varying rites, as well as how they are practiced, whether sung or read.
Also under negotiation are is a more lenient policy allowing Christians to worship in the Cenacle, which they traditionally believe to be the site where Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection and where the Holy Spirit descended upon them at Pentecost.
Observing the importance of how Pope Francis was able to celebrate Mass there during his three day pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Bishop Shomali explained that “In some occasions yes,” the Christians can hold Mass, but it is not common and “you have to ask for permission.”
“Normally, only visits are allowed to this place because it is a place which is contested and claimed by Israelis and Muslims” he noted.
“Muslims consider it to be a mosque,” while “Israelis say ‘this is the Tomb of David area compound' and that “it was ours after 1948.’ So really the Vatican doesn’t want sovereignty over it,” the bishop explained. “They only want sometimes during the day to have the possibility of holding prayers.”
“But this Mass today is exceptional,” he said, referencing Pope Francis' Eucharistic celebration there on May 26. “It’s not part of the normal sequence of events for the daily basis use of the Cenacle.”
Voicing his hopes for the outcome of the negotiations, which Israeli Ambassador to the Holy See Dr. Zion Evrony stated could conclude this summer, Bishop Shomali said that “we hope that the Vatican will be able to have more usage.”
“More hours of prayer, in the early morning before the pilgrims start to come so no one will be ‘hurt’ by these two hours.”
Alan Holdren contributed to this piece.
Washington D.C., May 30, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Foes of federal rules requiring free insurance coverage of abortion-causing drugs and devices have filed legal briefs in support of a lawsuit representing dozens of Southern Baptist and other Christian organizations.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. and other Southern Baptist leaders said in an amicus brief that the HHS mandate “imposes a substantial burden” on the free exercise of religion.
It forces Southern Baptist individuals or ministries into “an impossible choice” requiring them “to either violate conscience or the law,” the brief states.
Their amicus brief explained that Southern Baptists and other Christians “cannot distribute abortion-inducing drugs and devices either directly or indirectly” without violating their faith.
The Department of Health and Human Services mandate requires most U.S. employers to provide insurance coverage for some abortion drugs, sterilization and contraception. Many Christian organizations do not qualify for the narrow exemption from the mandate, despite their religious and moral objections to providing the coverage.
Other briefs were filed or supported by the National Association of Evangelicals, Prison Fellowship, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Christian Medical Association, the Christian Legal Society, the American Center for Law and Justice, Concerned Women for America, Americans United for Life, and Women Speak for Themselves.
They are backing a religious freedom class action lawsuit filed on behalf of GuideStone Financial Services, the benefits arm of the Southern Baptist Convention; the Georgia-based Truett-McConnell College; and Reaching Souls International, an Oklahoma-based Christian ministry that cares for orphans in Africa and trains pastors in Africa, India, and Cuba.
The lawsuit challenges the HHS mandate requiring employers to provide insurance coverage for drugs that can cause abortions; the suit represents over 180 ministries.
“The government wants to force small non-profit ministries like Reaching Souls and Truett-McConnell to change their health plan in a way that violates their consciences—or pay crushing penalties,” Adèle Keim, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said May 28.
“These ministries – and hundreds others like them – have chosen GuideStone because they want health benefits that reflect their deeply-held Christian beliefs,” said Keim, who is also counsel for GuideStone.
The lawsuit won a preliminary injunction against the mandate in December 2013. The federal government has appealed the case to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While some houses of worship and religious nonprofits have gained an exemption or accommodation from the mandate, for-profit businesses are still required to pay for all objectionable products and procedures.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue an important religious freedom ruling in late June involving Hobby Lobby, a craft store company owned by a Christian family with objections to providing abortion-causing drugs.
Many Catholic organizations, including dioceses, religious orders, and colleges, have filed suits against the mandate. They additionally object to mandatory coverage of contraception and sterilization. In total, more than 90 suits have been filed over the mandate, representing more than 300 plaintiffs.
Vatican City, May 30, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
A small Filipino community in Israel has expressed their joy that Pope Francis will travel to their country next January, stating they hope his presence will bring peace and heal divisions.
“We are blessed that he will go to our place. We are so happy, absolutely blessed,” Mercy Agosta told CNA May 25, adding that “It’s also a blessing for us because for Filipinos it’s hard to go to Rome.”
Originally hailing from Isabela, Philippines, Agosta has been living in Tel Aviv, Israel for 11 years and was present in Bethlehem’s Manger Square along with the organization “Pilgrimage for a Cause” to celebrate Mass with Pope Francis during his three day trip to the Holy Land.
Leading their first trip in 1997, “Pilgrimage for a Cause” was established by Filipina domestic workers and organizes Christmas pilgrimages to Bethlehem each year through their parish, St. Anthony in Tel Aviv.
The organization, who charges extra to participate in the visits in order to send money to poor communities in the Philippines, rented four tour buses and sold tickets to pilgrims who wanted to go the Pope’s Mass. Proceeds will go directly to aid needy and abandoned children in the Philippines, as well as basic repairs for their parish.
Among the other members of the Filipino community gathered for the papal Mass was Claudia, who has been living in Tel Aviv for seven years.
Regarding the Pope’s upcoming visit to her country, she explained that “we feel that he is the head of us” and “we hope that he brings a lot of understanding because a lot of people are lost.”
“Sometimes they lose their religion and their humanity” Claudia observed, giving note to ongoing territorial tensions between the government and the Muslim community in Mindanao, “so we want him when he goes there, to help reunite all the groups, and peace.”
“We hope that those Arabs, Muslims and Christians can be reunited. We pray.”
Pope Francis officially announced his two day visit to Sri Lanka and the Philippines, slated to occur in January 2015, to journalists during an in-flight news conference May 26 on his way back from the Holy Land, Italian newspaper La Stampa reports.
The visit comes as a response to the request of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo, who had invited Pope Francis to visit the country in February.
Regarding the Roman Pontiff’s presence in the Holy Land, Agosta stated that their hope for the outcome of his pilgrimage will be “Peace, peace, peace.”
“For prosperity and love in all the nations” she added, recalling how they prayed the rosary together for peace in the bus on the way over. “We really want peace, and mostly in the Palestinian territory.”
Vatican City, May 30, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
In his first daily homily since returning from the Holy Land Pope Francis centered on the theme of Christian joy, explaining that it comes not from our immediate circumstances, but what Jesus promised.
“Be courageous in suffering and remember that after the Lord will come; after joy will come, after the dark comes the sun” the Pope encouraged in his May 30 daily Mass. “May the Lord give us all this joy in hope.”
Basing his homily on the first reading, taken from the Acts of the Apostles in which the Lord tells St Paul not to be afraid of preaching to the people of Corinth, the pontiff explained to those in the Vatican’s Saint Martha guesthouse that the apostle “was very brave, because he had strength in the Lord.”
But despite this confidence even Paul was afraid at times and needed reassurance from God, the Pope observed, stating that “It happens to all of us in life, to have some ‘fear.’”
However, Paul didn’t let the fact that “neither the Jews nor the Gentiles” liked what he was saying stop him from proclaiming the Gospel, he continued, adding that even Jesus in Gethsemane was afraid.
“We must tell the truth: Christian life not just one big party. Not at all! We cry, we cry so many times,” the Roman Pontiff continued, “When we are sick; when we have a problem with our son, in the family, with our daughter or wife, or husband.”
“When we see that our salary does not reach the end of the month and we have a sick child; when we see that we cannot pay the mortgage on the house and we must somehow survive” he went on, adding that although we have “So many problems” Jesus tells us “Do not be afraid!”
Noting that there is another type of sadness that comes “when we take the wrong road” and try “to buy (the) happiness, joy, of the world, of sin,” Pope Francis explained that this “is the sadness of the wrong sort of happiness” but that Christian happiness “is a joy in hope, which comes.”
“However in times of trial we do not see this. It is a joy that is purified by trials, our everyday trials” the Pope continued, observing that “it's hard to go to a sick person who is suffering greatly and say: ‘Come on! Come on! Tomorrow you will have joy!’”
“No, you cannot say this! We have to help them feel what Jesus made us feel.”
Going on, he explained that “When we are in the dark” and “we do not see anything” we need to make an act of faith in the Lord, saying “I know, Lord that this sorrow will turn to joy. I do not know how, but I know it!”
Using the example of a woman in labor to illustrate how sadness turns into joy, the Bishop of Rome stated that “It’s true, women suffer a lot in childbirth, but then when she holds her child she forgets” and what is left is “the joy of Jesus, a purified joy.”
It is “the joy that remains” he observed, noting that although “hidden in some moments of life, we do not feel it in bad times, it comes later: a joy in hope.”
This, then, “is the message of the Church today: Do not be afraid!”
Concluding his reflections, the Pope prayed that all might receive “this joy in hope,” explaining that “the sign that we have this joy in hope is peace.”
“How many sick, who are at the end of life, in pain, have that peace of soul” he noted, affirming that “This is the seed of joy, this is the joy of hope and peace.”
“Do you have peace of soul in times of darkness, in times of trouble, in times of persecution, when everyone else rejoices at your suffering? Do you have peace?” he asked. “If you have peace, you have the seed of joy that will come later. May the Lord help us understand these things.”
Kyiv, Ukraine, May 30, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
In the midst of ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine, a Roman Catholic priest from Poland who was kidnapped May 27 by separatists in the city of Donetsk has been released.
Father Pawel Vitka says he was accused of being a spy by separatists affiliated with the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic. Fr. Vitka, who works in Kazakhstan but was visiting a fellow priest in Ukraine at the time, was freed after 24 hours in captivity.
“Tuesday morning I was praying with a rosary outside the DPR administration building,” Fr. Vitka told Catholic News Agency on the day of his release. “They asked to see my documents and I explained that I didn’t have them on me at the moment.”
Local, pro-Russian separatist forces took control of the Donetsk regional state administration building in early April and declared the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic, which has since been running much of its operations from that building.
“I told them that I was a priest,” Fr. Vitka continued, “but they said that many people have claimed to be priests recently and that perhaps I was actually a spy. I told the main man that it’s very easy to check in the Roman Catholic office of Ukraine, but I saw on his face that he wasn’t going to check.”
The separatists in Donetsk and in Luhansk declared independence from Ukraine after referendums held May 11, but these have been recognized neither by Western nations nor Kyiv.
Fr. Vitka described being left for two hours with two separatists, one of whom beat him on the knee.
“I was scared in that moment when he hit me, as it was clear that he really knew how to hit.”
According to Fr. Vitka, the two men proceeded to blindfold him, bind his legs and hands, and put him in the trunk of a car before driving off.
“I thought they were driving to the forest, where a grave was already waiting for me.”
In fact they drove Fr. Vitka to the former Security Service of Ukraine building in Donetsk, which is also occupied by DPR separatists, and where he remained for the duration of his captivity.
“I was lying on a cement floor, just lying there and praying, lying and praying,” Fr. Vitka explained. “Sometimes they came to check to see if I was alive.”
They brought him food and debated whether they should untie his hands, or feed him themselves.
“They freed my hands, but threatened that if I tried to free my legs, they would hurt me.”
“In the morning, I heard that other people who were arrested got food, but they didn’t feed me, so I thought that it was the end.”
“During that time, I was praying a rosary for the souls of the relatives of the separatists in purgatory. I promised that I would celebrate three Masses for their souls if I would still be alive. Then one of them came and welcomed me to join them for breakfast. I went with them and they became very sweet.”
“While we were eating,” Fr. Vitka continued, “Ukrainian air forces flew over the building, so we moved downstairs. When the plane flew over, one of the men – the one who looked like he was ready to kill me the day before if someone had only given him a weapon – handed me his helmet and said, ‘Father, take it, we need somebody to stay alive and pray for peace.’”
The priest commented that “war is the devil’s creation, but people remain people. People have a lot of bad things inside them, but also a lot of good.”
Later that day, May 28, Poland’s consul general in Donetsk, Jakub Wolasiewicz, was able to secure Fr. Vitka’s release through dialogue.
In Donetsk, dozens of rebels – including both separatists and Russian nationals, according to the BBC – died Monday in a battle with Ukrainian government forces at the airport, and in Sloviansk 12 Ukrainian troops died Thursday when separatists shot down their helicopter.
The unrest comes as acting president Oleksander Turchynov prepares to hand over power June 7 to Petro Poroshenko, who was elected Ukraine's president May 25, winning 55 percent of the vote.
Fr. Vitka's kidnapping is not an isolated case, as both religious leaders and lay people have been affected by the unrest in eastern Ukraine.
On May 10 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate confirmed that one of its priests, Fr. Pavlo Zuchenko of Druzhkivka in the Donetsk region, had been killed.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office stated that “terrorists being coordinated by an outside aggressor” were responsible for the murder. Fr. Zuchenko was killed by an automatic firearm after trying to convince opponents of the Kyiv authorities to give up their arms, Interfax-Ukraine reported .
Another incident occurred May 23 when two activists who had been praying in an interdenominational prayer tent in the center of Donetsk were beaten by 15 armed men, according to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine. The attackers, who wore symbols associated with the DPR, also took audio and technical equipment from the tent.
Serhiy Kosyak, a Protestant pastor in Donetsk who was in the tent at the time and was beaten, wrote on his Facebook page that the separatists threatened to shoot people who would come back later that night to pray in the tent.
“But many more people came to pray that night, even though they knew about these threats,” Kosyak told CNA.
No incidents occurred during the evening prayer gathering.
Two days later, in the neighboring region of Luhansk, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was arrested, accused of terrorism.
The priest, Fr. Maretskiy, was with a group of armed men who burst into two polling stations in Luhansk during the May 25 presidential election.
The men, reportedly affiliated with the self-proclaimed Peoples' Republic of Luhansk, tried to disrupt the voting process and threatened those at the polling station. Fr. Maretskiy, along with 13 others, was detained by Ukrainian forces.
On May 27 an eparchial committee determined that Fr. Maretskiy could no longer act as a priest in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate.
“Inside the Church we have so many priests with so many different political opinions,” Oleksandr Drabynko, Metropolitan of Vyshneve and Pereyaslav-Khmelnytskyy and secretary for the primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, told CNA.
“I’m very sorry to say that some of our priests really were terrorists.”
“We recognize that fact. But we also recognize that inside the Church, like in society, there is a problem – we don’t have an ideal society. This priest should answer not only to the Church court but also to the Ukrainian state.”
“In my opinion, the Church environment is just a mirror of society,” Metropolitan Oleksandr explained. “Sometimes a mirror shows all the worst things, and since we are on the border between the spirit and the body, we see many more problems.”
Metropolitan Oleksandr confirmed in a statement last week that he too experienced “forced isolation” earlier this year under the regime of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who allegedly wanted the Church's primate, Metropolitan Volodymyr, removed from his position, the Religious Information Service of Ukraine reported.
As Metropolitan Oleksandr is the primate’s personal secretary, his isolation is being investigated by Ukraine’s prosecutor general as an attempt to exert direct pressure on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and to endanger the life of Metropolitan Volodymyr.
“Our Church is being cleansed from its Soviet past, together with society,” Metropolitan Oleksandr said.
“We are changing and being renewed.”
Denver, Colo., May 30, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) -
A commission’s ruling that Colorado baker Jack Phillips must bake same-sex “wedding” cakes forces him to choose between violating his conscience and supporting his family, the baker’s lawyer said.
“In America, we don’t separate a person’s creative expression from what he believes. Jack simply exercised the long-cherished American freedom to decline to use his artistic and creative talents to promote a message with which he disagrees,” said Nicolle Martin, the lawyer representing Phillips’ Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo.
Martin, an attorney allied with the national legal group Alliance Defending Freedom, said May 30 that an appeal is being considered because the government “should not force him to choose between his faith and his livelihood.”
Phillips declined to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s “wedding” reception almost two years ago. He has said that his Christian faith prohibits him from doing so. Based on his beliefs, he also declines to make cakes for Halloween and bachelor parties.
He has explained that he is willing to serve gay individuals – by making birthday or graduation cakes – but cannot use his creative talents to endorse a gay “wedding” ceremony because doing so would violate his religious beliefs.
“Gay marriage” is not recognized by the state of Colorado.
The gay couple filed a discrimination complaint against Phillips’ store in July 2012.
Colorado’s seven-member Civil Rights Commission reaffirmed a December 2013 ruling from administrative judge Robert N. Spencer that the shop illegally discriminated against the two men.
Phillips had appealed the ruling to the commission on free speech and religious freedom grounds. His lawyer said that creative cake-making is a type of artistic expression that is protected under the First Amendment.
The commission’s ruling requires Phillips to submit quarterly reports for the next two years showing he is changing company policies and training employees to avoid discriminatory practices. He must report any potential customers who are turned away, the Denver Post reports.
“Any person doing business in Colorado has to recognize that they have to do business in an ethical and law abiding way and the law says you cannot discriminate,” commission vice-chair Raju Jairam said.
After Friday’s ruling, the baker said he would not violate his beliefs.
“I will stand by my convictions until somebody shuts me down,” he said on Friday, according to the Denver Post.
Colorado law bans discrimination on several grounds, including religion, sexual orientation and gender identity.