Archive of June 5, 2014

Vatican to host world meeting on pastoral care of Gypsies

Vatican City, Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - A pontifical council has organized a conference at the Vatican to address the pastoral care of Gypsies, and will focus primarily on new strategies of evangelization.

Entitled “The Church and Gypsies: to Announce the Gospel in the Peripheries,” the meeting will take place June 5-9 and will gather both Episcopal Promoters and National Directors of the Pastoral Care of Gypsies, Vatican Radio reported June 3. The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People has organized the event.

Gypsy is an English term referring to Romani and other ethnic groups with a traditionally itinerant lifestyle. Romani is used in reference to a dispersed ethnic group of people with Indian origins who live primarily in Europe and the Americas.

According to Vatican Radio, the conference participants, who will meet with Pope Francis on the first day, will center discussion on two key objectives, the first being a re-examination of Church's pastoral commitment to Gypsies with an eye to the current social environment, which calls for new strategies.

The second goal will be to prepare for the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI's visit to Pomezia on Sept. 27, 1965, for the international pilgrimage of Gypsies.

Including Mass and talks by Cardinal Antonio Maria Vegliò and of Bishop Joseph Kalathiparambil, President and secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, the meeting will also consist of a series of sessions focusing on the different aspects of Gypsy culture and evangelization.

According to Vatican Radio, there is already a set ministry for Gypsies in place in 24 countries around the world, including Europe, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, India and Bangladesh.

Within these communities are also ethnic Gypsy consecrated lay people, priests, deacons and religious, the agency reports, stating that an important element of the conference will be the increasing presence of consecrated Gypsies in the world, currently numbered close to 170.

There are currently three Gypsies who have an open cause for canonization, one of whom is Zefferino Giménez Malla, who Benedict XVI referred to as a “Martyr of the Rosary.” Other gypsie causes currently under consideration are for Emilia and Juan Ramon.

Living mostly in Europe, the Americas and some Asian countries, there are around 36 million Gypsies worldwide, with an estimated 18 million living in India, where the ethnic group originally came from.

Vatican Radio, who obtained their figures from the Council of Europe, also reports that there are around 500,000 sea Gypsies in Bangladesh, more than 900,000 in Brazil and one million Gypsies living in the United States.

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Mexicans continue to seek truth behind cardinal's murder

Guadalajara, Mexico, Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Cardinal Juan Posadas Ocampo was gunned down May 24, 1993, in the parking lot of Guadalajara International Airport, along with six other persons.

Twenty-one years after the cardinal’s death, the assassination has never been solved, with accusations levied against both drug cartels and the Mexican government of the time.

Attorney Jesus Becerra Pedrote has traced the investigations and red herrings following the murder of the Archbishop of Guadalajara, publishing his findings in a new book, “The Jackals,” asking that the truth about the affair finally come to light.

The assassination of Cardinal Posadas “involved people of the inner circle of the then-president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas de Gortari,” according to Becerra.

“There is no evidence that the president ordered the assassination, but there is evidence that the president’s men committed the assassination,” the lawyer told CNA May 21.

Cardinal Posadas was killed while sitting in his car at the airport. He was shot 14 times with automatic weapons.

He was at the airport awaiting the arrival of Archbishop Girolamo Prigione, who was then apostolic nuncio to Mexico.

Becerra’s book reports his 20 years of investigation into the matter with Fernando Guzman, who had been deputy and part of a small commission of investigation established within the Mexican parliament under the administration Ernesto Zedillo, president from 1994 to 2000.

Guzman told CNA May 21 that “despite the official conclusions of a government inquiry” claiming the cardinal was caught in a shootout between rival cartels and was “mistakenly identified with the drug lord El Chapo Guzman (of the Sinaloa Cartel)  … there was a social request to carry on a new inquiry.”

“There were many witnesses, and many of them spoke about an execution.”

The investigation had been stuck and slowed down from 1994 to 2000. During that time, Mexico was governed by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, to which president Salinas belonged.

The inquiry then progressed under the 2000-2006 administration of Vicente Fox, of the National Action Party. Under Fox, both independent lawyers and members of the Church were able to take part in inquiry commissions.

“We had heard of some videos of the executions, but the court at first responded us there were no video,” Guzman recounted. “Then, the progress of the inquiry from 2000 to 2002 led us to know that there actually was a video.”

“We have never found the video recording, but we are certain that the video had been filmed.”

Guzman also said that “the witness of an old friend of Cardinal Posadas showed that the cardinal had been received in the presidential residence Los Spinos 18 days before his assassination, and on that occasion he had been threatened for having complained about the production of drug cartels in Jalisco.”

Becerra underscored: “it is clear that officials of the then-government took part in the assassination,” even though “only now can we emphasize this.”

“There are almost 10 witnesses who recounted that rifle-armed men encircled the cardinal and discharged their rifles on the him,” Becerra stated.

According to the report of forensic doctor Mario Rivas, Cardinal Posadas’ body was riddled by 14 bullets, fired from fewer than 3 feet away.

“There is a lot of evidence that the assassination was premeditated,” the attorney said.

According to Becerra “the general Gutierrez Rebollo, who had spent several years imprisoned for alleged drug trafficking, has said the scenario to kill the cardinal had been prepared.”

“The assassination was not just because of drug trafficking or the cartels.”

“It was because the courageous Cardinal Posadas raised his head against all of these issues.”

Becerra said, “we can discuss whether it was a state crime or not, but the investigations made by public prosecutors involve top levels of the Mexican army and intelligence.”

He added that “the Church has always maintained that Cardinal Posada’s death was an execution, and it is only because of their effort that we can now be aware of more details of the assassination.”

According to the Mexican daily El Universal, Cardinal Posadas’ successor, Jose Robles Ortega, said at a May 20 presentation of Becerra’s book in Rome that the Church hopes that he “will be officially declared a martyr, the first step toward his possible beatification.”

“The last thing our country needs at this time is revenge,” said Cardinal Robles. “We are moved solely by the desire to live in peace, to live as brothers, though on the basis of truth and of justice.”

“I am moved by the desire that justice is done to my predecessor, a man who fought for peace, for the good of Mexico, and for love of the Church.”

Becerra concluded, saying that investigations “continue, in any case. Just six weeks ago we received new information, and public authorities have been strongly pushing in the search for truth.”

“Today, president Enrique Pena Nieto has the opportunity to search for concord and to establish justice.”

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Blasphemy laws present in nearly one-quarter of world's countries

Washington D.C., Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Laws punishing acts of blasphemy or apostasy against certain religions are present in almost one-fourth of the world’s countries, said a U.S–based religious research group.  

“Apostasy and blasphemy may seem to many like artifacts of history. But in dozens of countries around the world, laws against apostasy and blasphemy remain even today,” said the Pew Research Center in a May 30 blog post.

The organization found that “that as of 2012, nearly a quarter of the world’s countries and territories” had anti-blasphemy laws or policies, and 11 percent of countries had “laws or policies penalizing apostasy.” Consequences for changing faiths or criticizing a religion ranged from fines to the death penalty.

Pew examined data in its 2014 Religious Freedom Report, as well as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom's 2014 report.

The research showed anti-blasphemy laws across the world and on every populated continent, with some of the most severe legislation enacted in Pakistan.

Such laws are also on the books in Michigan and Massachusetts, although they are not enforced in these states.

On example in which anti-blasphemy laws were used came in the North African country of Mauritania, where anti-slavery activists were imprisoned “after publicly burning religious texts to denounce what the activists viewed as support for slavery in Islamic commentary and jurisprudence.”

While apostasy laws were found to be less common overall – only 21 countries had anti-apostasy legislation on the books – these laws were present in “more than half the countries in the Middle East-North Africa region,” Pew said.

These laws against leaving a certain faith often have strict consequences, with punishments as severe as death, in some cases, or the loss of citizenship, such as in the Maldives, where “all citizens are required to be Muslim.”

Apostasy laws have drawn attention in recent weeks in connection with Meriam Yehya Ibrahim, a 27-year-old woman who has been sentenced to death in Sudan.

Ibrahim is recognized as Muslim under Sudanese law because her father was Muslim, despite the fact that her father abandoned the family when she was six years old, and she was raised as a Christian by her Ethiopian Orthodox mother.

Ibrahim was arrested in August 2013; a Khartoum court convicted her May 15 of apostasy from Islam, and adultery, on the grounds that marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men is not recognized.

She recently gave birth to the couple’s second child while in prison. Reports indicate that she will be allowed to nurse her baby for several months before her death sentence is carried out. Meanwhile, international attention and pressure is growing on Sudan to release her and her children.

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Pope: the Church is not a rental house, but a home

Vatican City, Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis focused his daily homily on Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his disciples, cautioning that there are many in the Church who call themselves Catholic, but are only half committed.

There are some groups that “rent the Church, but do not claim it as their home,” the Pope observed during his June 5 daily Mass, stating that the Church “is not a house to rent” but rather “is a home to live in.”

Centering his reflections on Jesus’ prayer in John’s Gospel that “all might be one,” the Roman Pontiff explained that there are many people who appear to have “one foot inside” the Church and one foot out, so that they can have “the possibility of being in both places” at once.

Drawing attention to the different mentalities that fuel this attitude, the Bishop of Rome noted that one group is what he called the “uniformists.”

“Uniformity, rigidity – these are hard. They do not have the freedom that the Holy Spirit gives” he said, adding that they “confuse the Gospel that Jesus preached with their doctrine of equality.”

“Christ never wanted His Church to be so rigid – never – and such as these, because of their attitude, do not enter the Church. They call themselves Christians, Catholics, but their attitude drives them away from the Church.”

Bringing to mind a second group, Pope Francis explained that there are “alternativists” in the Church who remain attached to their own ideas and refuse to conform their own minds to the mind of the Church.

“(They) enter the Church, but with this idea, with that ideology, and so their membership in the Church is partial,” he observed, saying that “they have one foot out of the Church. The Church is not their home, not their own, either. They rent the Church at some point.”

“Such as these have been with us from the beginning of the preaching of the Gospel: think of the Gnostics, whom the Apostle John beats so roundly, right?  ‘We are ... yes, yes ... we are Catholics, but with these ideas - alternatives.’ They do not share that feeling of belonging to the Church.”

Going on, the Roman Pontiff noted that there is a third group who refuses to fully embrace the Church, which he termed the “exploitationists” that “'seek the benefits' and go to church, but for personal benefit.”

“The businessmen. We know them well!” he said, explaining that this group has also been around since the beginning of the Church, and can be seen in the figures of Simon Magus, or Ananias and Sapphira.

Observing how these people “took advantage of the Church for their own profit,” the Pope stated that “we see them in the parish or diocesan community, too, in religious congregations, among some benefactors of the Church – many, eh?”

“They strut their stuff as benefactors of the Church, and at the end, behind the table, they do their business. These, too, do not feel the Church as a mother, as their own.”

Pope Francis then went on to describe how there is “a great diversity of people and gifts of the Spirit” within the Church, adding that the Lord tells us that “If you would enter the Church, do so out of love” in order “to give all your heart, and not to do business for profit.”

Admitting that to do this is not easy because “the temptations are many,” the pontiff explained that we must trust in the Holy Spirit, who is the only one that can accomplish this “unity in diversity, freedom, generosity.”

“We are all different…we are not the same, thank God,” he said, otherwise “Things would be hellish.”

He then called attention to the importance of being docile to the Holy Spirit, noting that this docility “is the virtue that will save us from being rigid, from being alternativists or exploitationists – or businessmen in the Church: being docile to the Holy Spirit.”

Bringing his homily to a close, Pope Francis prayed that the Lord “send us the Holy Spirit and may the Spirit make this harmony in our communities: parish communities, diocesan communities, the communities of the (ecclesial) movements.”

“Let it be the Spirit that achieves this harmony, for, as one of the Fathers of the Church said: the Spirit Himself is harmony.”

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Late cardinal of India remembered for his serenity in suffering

Vatican City, Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - During the funeral Mass for Cardinal Simon Lourdusamy, who passed away Monday, fellow cardinals gathered to commemorate his life of service, as well as his sense of peace in the midst of suffering.

“For two decades (he) dedicated his energy to the great cause of the evangelization of peoples until when, tried by illness, he continued to serve the Church with the prayer of suffering, with an attitude of great serenity,” Cardinal Angelo Sodano recalled in his June 5 homily for the Mass.

Taking place at 11:30 a.m. in Rome, Cardinal Lourdusamy’s funeral was held inside St. Peter’s Basilica and was presided over by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Dean of the College of Cardinals.

Born in Kalleri, India, in 1924, Cardinal Lourdusamy was ordained a priest for the archdiocese of ‎Pondicherry at the age of 27. In 1962 he was appointed as Auxiliary Bishop of Bangalore, and just two years later was made the diocese’s Coadjutor Bishop.

In 1968 he was made archbishop of the ‎Bangalore archdiocese, and he held that position until his appointment as an official of Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples by Pope Paul VI in 1971.

Following 14 years of service in that capacity, the cardinal was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope John Paul II in 1985, and just five months later was named Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches. He held that post until he needed to resign in 1991 due to poor health.

“In the silence of the night three days ago, from his bed of pain in the Pius XI clinic,” Cardinal Lourdusamy was able to repeat “the words of the elderly Simon: ‘Now, Lord, you may let your servant depart in peace,’” Cardinal Sodano reflected in his homily.

“Abandoned into the hands of the Lord this faithful servant of the Church peacefully closed his eyes on the scene of this world, to open them to the light of eternity.”

Describing the late cardinal as “a zealous priest” who served the Church for 20 years not only in his home country of India but also for 20 years in in Rome, the dean of cardinals noted that “in these final years from his bed of pain our dear Cardinal continued, always in a serene way, this apostolic action.”

Recalling how the cardinal would sometimes quote John Paul II’s Apostolic Letter on Pain “Salvifici doloris,” Cardinal Sodano stated that “it seemed that our Cardinal wanted to repeat the words of St Paul: ‘I rejoice in my sufferings for you.’”

“Yes, dear Cardinal Lourdusamy, all the angels and saints accompany you in paradise! In particular Holy Mary, the Queen of the Apostles, of those to whom you were a devoted son,” he concluded.

“May the saints and martyrs of your dear Indian land welcome you. Dear brother, rest in peace!”

In a June 2 message addressed to Archbishop Anthony Anandarayar of the Pondicherry and Cuddalore archdiocese on the occasion of the cardinal’s death, Pope Francis offered his “‎deepest condolences” to the priests, religious and laypersons of the diocese.

“I pray ‎that God the Father of mercies may grant him the reward of his labors and welcome his noble ‎soul into the peace and joy of heaven,” he said.

“To all assembled for the solemn funeral Mass, I cordially ‎impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of strength and consolation in the Lord.‎”

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Pope Francis appoints new board for Vatican's financial watchdog

Vatican City, Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - Pope Francis has appointed a new board for the Authority for Financial Information, marking a new step in the path toward financial transparency, and strengthening the international profile of the authority.

The new members are: Marc Odendall, a financial consultant in the philanthropic sector, from Switzerland; Joseph Yuvaraj Pillay, president of the Council of Consultors of the president of Singapore; Juan Zarate, senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Harvard professor of law; and the Italian Maria Bianca Farina, managing director of the Italian insurance companies Poste Vita and Poste Assicurazioni.

The Pope had already appointed a new president of the authority Jan. 30, in the person of Bishop Giorgio Corbellini.

Bishop Corbellini replaced the first president of the authority, Cardinal Attilio Nicora, who resigned due to having reached the age limit.

With today’s decision, Pope Francis completely replaced the board of the authority, whose members have been the same since its establishment in 2010.

The former members of the authority are: Marcello Condemi, one of the writers of the first Vatican anti-money laundering law; Giuseppe Dalla Torre, who is also president of the Vatican Court; Cesare Testa; Claudio Bianchi; and Francesco De Pasquale, a law expert who served as director of the authority since its establishment until 2012, and was then elevated to the rank of board member when René Bruelhart was called to take over the post of director.

According to the press bulletin released by the Holy See June 5, the Pope thanked the former members of the board for their work.

Together with the appointment of the new members of the board, the Holy See press office released the appointment of Tommaso Di Ruzza as interim deputy director of the authority.

Di Ruzza has been serving as Holy See legal officer since 2005, and in that capacity he joined the AIF in 2011. He made an important contribution in drawing on the reforms of the anti-money laundering law, which was first amended and substantially re-written in 2012 and then replaced and surpassed by a new law issued in October, 2013.

The reforms met the positive evaluation of the Council of Europe’s Moneyval committee both in an extensive evaluation report issued July, 2012 and in a progress report issued December, 2013.

By appointing the new members of the board, Pope Francis is strengthening the international profile of the Authority for Financial Information.

The new members complete the renewal of the board begun after the new statutes of the Authority for Financial Information were released though a moto proprio released Nov. 15, 2013.

The AIF's new statutes established an office for prudential supervision, strengthened the powers of the body, and clearly outlined the task of its board of directors, which is described as a body which delineates the strategic goals of the authority.

The new statutes also created the post of the deputy director, which had been vacant until Di Ruzza's appointment today.

The AIF has strengthened its international framework under the direction of Bruelhart; he has signed some 20 memoranda of understanding with corresponding authorities, the most important being those of the U.S., Germany, and Italy.

In July 2013, the Vatican’s financial watchdog joined the Egmont Group, an ‘umbrella’ which gathers financial intelligence units from all over the world.

The AIF’s international commitment was part of the Vatican’s effort to tailor a transparent financial system that would at the same time meet international standards.

After the issue of the new statutes, Pope Francis gave the AIF a new board, thus marking the new course of the authority.

It is yet to be seen how the authority will be included in the curial reform begun by Pope Francis.

There will be the need to balance the AIF’s need for independence with the purposes of the recently established Secretariat for the Economy, and at the same time to outline how the economy secretariat will work along with the Secretariat of State, a specialist in Vatican financial matters told CNA June 4.

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Archdiocese of Philadelphia urges support of March for Marriage

Philadelphia, Pa., Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - In defense of the dignity of marriage, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has announced its participation in the second annual March for Marriage in Washington, D.C., later this month.

“By its very nature, marriage is ordered not only to companionship and mutual support, but also – and even more fundamentally – to the procreation and education of children,” stated Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

“This is why every child deserves a family where the father loves the mother, and the mother loves the father.”

Archbishop Chaput promoted participation in the 2014 March for Marriage, saying that “it’s vital that the Church keep working to defend the integrity of marriage. As Catholics we should avail ourselves of the opportunities, whenever we can, to witness to the truth about God’s plan for marriage.”

Buses will depart from a number of parishes throughout the Philadelphia archdiocese to travel to Washington, D.C., where participants will unite with groups from across the country to show their support for marriage on June 19.

Attendees at the upcoming march will include Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone of San Francisco, who heads the U.S. bishops’ defense and promotion of marriage committee; Brian Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage; and Reverend Ruben Diaz, New York senator and president of the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization.

In an April 7 letter to their fellow bishops, Archbishop Cordileone and Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo stated that “this is a critical time for marriage in our country, as marriage amendments are being struck down by federal courts and appeals of these decisions are being made. We are deeply grateful for any support you can offer for this march.”  

The 2013 March for Marriage was held last March, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that eventually ordered the federal government to accept redefinitions of marriage in states that choose to redefine the institution.

This first annual march rallied an estimated 10,000 people, encouraging Americans to stand up for the traditional and historical union between one man and woman.

Organizers are hoping to build on the success of last year’s event. Those who cannot physically attend the march are encouraged to unite their prayers and fasting with that of participants for the sake of protecting marriage.

“The March for Marriage will be an important means to promote and defend marriage for the good of our culture, to pray for our federal and state governments, and to stand in solidarity with people of good will,” stressed Archbishop Cordileone and Bishop Malone.

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Despite improvements, still 'a long way to go' for US homeless

Washington D.C., Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - A new report on homelessness shows some improvements in the country's response to those who are without shelter, but also a need for continued work, said an advisor to the U.S. bishops.

“There's a long way to go still, especially (for) those who are most vulnerable,” said Tom Mulloy, policy advisor on economy, labor, housing and welfare for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In a June 3 interview with CNA, he explained that “the vast majority of people who compromise the homeless population are non-chronic persons and families who have fallen on hard times,” rather than people who are continually without a home.

“We're talking about people for whom living paycheck-to-paycheck is a hard reality.”

Mulloy spoke in reference to a new report by the Homelessness Research Institute. The report shows a slight decrease in U.S. homelessness as the economic recovery from the financial crisis of 2008 continues, as well as a decrease in unemployment and increase in shelter services and re-housing programs.

However, these trends were not uniform throughout the country; 20 states showed an increase in homelessness, and some populations – such as veterans – saw extremely high rates of homelessness in some regions.

In addition, the report found that the economic recovery is reaching the poor at a slower rate, with the number of those in poverty increasing between 2012 and 2013, and the rate of poverty remaining the same nationally even as unemployment rates decrease.

Furthermore, the number of poor rental households paying more than half of their income towards housing – a key risk factor for homelessness – increased nationally.

Mulloy noted both the “modest uptick in affordable housing need” and the lack of “employment security” nationally for those at risk of losing their homes as among the most pressing concerns highlighted by the report.

For many people in a vulnerable housing situation, he said, “one hard expense is the difference between making and not making rent one month.”

The Catholic Church has played an essential role in addressing the challenges facing the homeless and those at risk of losing their homes, Mulloy said, by “making sure that there's an adequate amount of safe and affordable housing.”

“In 2011, Catholic Charities provided approximately half a million people with housing assistance,” helping to provide “the complete spectrum of housing” for homeless and vulnerable persons, he explained.

At the same time, he said, the U.S .Conference of Catholic Bishops has advocated “federal policies that are known to alleviate poverty,” particularly child- and working- tax credits that are “pro-family, pro-work, and are some of the most effective ways of alleviating poverty.”

In addition to “advocating decent jobs with just wages,” the conference has also been “supportive of federal appropriations” in helping families and local communities address poverty and housing vulnerability, Mulloy added.  

“The bishops’ conference has been for years an advocate of the national housing trust fund,” he said. “There's a pretty extraordinary unmet need, and we all need to work together to make sure that the most vulnerable among us have access” to housing and other necessities.

In addressing homelessness and poverty, he explained, “the bishops have never said it's an either/or, but a both/and case of the private sector and the public sector.”

This includes a “mixture of private and public” funding to address the issue.

Based on the latest report, Mulloy said, “what we're doing on a national level is working, but more can be done.”

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Bishop wows Georgia Catholics at baseball charity night

Savannah, Ga., Jun 5, 2014 (CNA) - It's the first time the Savannah Sand Gnats have seen a standing ovation after the first pitch.

That's probably because Gregory J. Hartmayer, Franciscan bishop of Savannah, threw it in front of more than 1,500 Catholics in attendance for a charity night at Grayson Stadium for the Sand Gnats vs. the Asheville Tourists game.

Barbara King, director of communications for the diocese, said the bishop had a combination of practice and experience on his side.

“He practiced on Tuesday with the Benedictine Military School baseball team, who won state baseball this year,” King told CNA June 5. “He also played some baseball in his youth, so he did a good job both at practice and at the game.”

The Savannah diocese partnered with the Sand Gnats to host a Catholic charity night during the game. King said the diocese bought 1,500 tickets to distribute to Catholics in the parishes, but even more turned up for the event.

More than 2,000 pounds of food were collected at the game for the Savannah Social Apostolate, an outreach of the Diocese of Savannah that serves the poor and the homeless.

“The Sand Gnats said it was the largest charity night they’ve ever had,” King said.

The diocese got the idea for the baseball charity event from a few other dioceses in the region. This year was the first year the Diocese of Savannah tried such an event.

“It was terrific night and a great way to get the Catholic community together for a good cause,” King said. “We’ll definitely do this again next year.”

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Hundreds of Catholic employers win exemption from HHS mandate

Oklahoma City, Okla., Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - A federal court has ruled that the Catholic Benefits Association and its hundreds of employer members are exempt from a federal mandate requiring coverage of contraceptives and abortifacient drugs.

“We are grateful for the ruling, but continue to pray that our leaders recognize that Catholics, whether bishops or businessmen, cannot in good conscience provide insurance that covers drugs and procedures that undermine the dignity of the human person and the sanctity of human life,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, the benefit association’s vice-president, said June 5.

“Religious freedom entails more than the right to worship and any contrary legislation must be opposed,” he added.

Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the association’s president, also welcomed the decision.

“We formed the Catholic Benefits Association to support Catholic employers in providing quality, cost-competitive, morally compliant health care benefits for their employees,” he said June 5. “Yesterday’s decision makes this a reality.”

On June 4, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma ruled that the more than 450 employer members of the benefits association are exempt from the mandate. The ruling enjoined the U.S. government and its agents from attempting to enforce the mandate against the association’s members.

The benefits association’s general counsel, Martin Nussbaum, said the ruling is “especially gratifying” because the lawsuit is the only challenge to the HHS mandate that includes Catholic-owned for-profit businesses and other non-exempt organizations like colleges, Catholic Charities and healthcare institutions in addition to houses of worship.

The benefits association's employers include 23 Catholic archdioceses and dioceses and almost 2,000 parishes in addition to non-profits and Catholic-owned for-profit businesses. Its membership is also open to Catholic religious congregations, Catholic medical facilities, and Catholic universities.

The Catholic Benefits Association formed a subsidy, the Catholic Insurance Company, to allow Catholic employers to exercise their faith in what health care coverage they provide to their employees. The association also arranges health provider networks to help Catholic employers provide comprehensive health care that is consistent with Catholic ethics.

The Department of Health and Human Services mandate requires employers to provide insurance coverage of sterilization and contraception, including some drugs that can cause early abortions.

Widespread complaint led to a series of changes in the mandate into its current finalized form. A religious exemption to the mandate does exist, but it applies primarily to houses of worship and their affiliated organizations.

Religious employers that do not qualify for the exemption are instead offered an “accommodation” by the government, under which employees automatically receive contraceptive coverage from the objecting groups’ health insurance issuers.

These provisions have continued to draw criticism and legal complaints from hundreds of individuals and organizations who argue that their right to exercise their religious beliefs freely is being violated by the requirements.

In addition, neither the exemption nor the accommodation applies to individuals with religious or moral objections who own for-profit businesses.  

Wednesday’s federal ruling on the class action lawsuit recognized that the benefits association could represent all its individual members without their explicit participation because its members are “so uniform in their beliefs.”

The named participants in the lawsuit include the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, Catholic Charities of Oklahoma City, Inc., Archbishop Lori and the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

Archbishop Coakley said that the U.S. government has already “effectively granted exemptions from the mandate to various employers whose plans cover more than 130 million employees.”

“We’re simply seeking the same exemption for Catholic employers who have religious objections to the unjust requirements of the mandate.”

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the mandate has prompted some 100 lawsuits from more than 300 plaintiffs, including non-profits, for-profits, Catholic and non-Catholic organizations, and individual states. So far, court decisions have predominantly favored the objecting groups.

A significant Supreme Court case involving the legal challenge filed by craft store giant Hobby Lobby is expected to be decided later this month.

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Suspects arrested over abduction of Jesuit in Afghanistan

Kabul, Afghanistan, Jun 5, 2014 (CNA/EWTN News) - An Afghan official stated Thursday that three Taliban members have been arrested and questioned over Monday's kidnapping, near Herat, of the Jesuit Fr. Alexis Prem Kumar.

“The police in Herat are doing their best to ensure the safe release of this person,” Sediq Sediqqi, Afghanistan's interior ministry spokesman, stated June 5, the Associated Press reported.

Fr. Kumar, 47, is from the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is Afghanistan director for Jesuit Refugee Services; he was abducted June 2 while accompanying teachers on a visit to a school for refugees in the village of Sohadat, some 500 miles west of Kabul.

“We are trying to get him to safety,” said Herat provincial governor Fazelullah Wahidi.

Jesuit Refugee Services provide education, health care, and social services to more than 500,000 refugees and internally displaced persons annually; Fr. Kumar has been working with them in Afghanistan since 2011.

In 2013, the agency assisted more than 6,000 Afghans who were returning from Iran and Pakistan.

“We are deeply shocked by Prem’s abduction,” Fr. Peter Balleis, international director of Jesuit Refugee Services, said June 3.

“We are in contact with all the relevant authorities and doing everything possible to ensure his safe and speedy return. Meanwhile, our prayers are with Prem and his family and friends at this difficult time.”

The kidnapping of the Indian-born priest follows a May 23 attack on the country's consulate in Herat.

J. Jayalalithaa, chief minister of Tamil Nadu, wrote to the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi June 5 saying, “I would be grateful if you could kindly intervene personally and take up the matter at the highest level in Afghanistan so that the local authorities redouble their efforts to secure the safe and early release of Father Alexis Prem Kumar.”

Before his time in Afghanistan, Fr. Kumar had worked with Sri Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu; villagers there told the Times of India that he had helped them move from makeshift dwellings covered with tarpaulin sheets into permanent concrete houses, and also helped protest discrimination against dalits.

An Indian friend who attended school with the priest said he had wanted to serve others since childhood.

“He used to talk about the plight of poor and downtrodden people when other students would be discussing cinema,” A. Thadeus told Indian daily.

Fr. Kumar's brother, Manoharan, said through NDTV: “I appeal to all in Afghanistan with folded hands, whoever it may be, to release my brother Fr. Alexis Prem Kumar as early as possible so that the agony what we are going through may end.”

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