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Pope Francis tells Latin American Ecclesial Assembly not to be elitist 

Vatican City, Jan 25, 2021 / 05:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis sent a video message Sunday to Latin American Church leaders organizing a “synodal” regional assembly, in which he asked them not to be ideological elites, but to remain close to the people of God.

“We have much to learn,” Pope Francis said in the video sent to the organizers of the first Ecclesial Assembly of the Church in Latin American and the Caribbean Jan. 24.

“This [will be] a meeting of the people of God: lay men and women, religious men and women, priests, bishops. All the people of God walking together: praying, speaking, thinking, discussing, and seeking the will of God,” the pope said.

The regional Ecclesial Assembly is scheduled to take place in Mexico City Nov. 21-28 with the theme: “We are all missionary disciples on the move.”

In his video message, Pope Francis said: “I want to accompany you with my prayers” ahead of the Ecclesial Assembly. He added that this assembly will be something distinctive from the previous regional meeting of the Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM) in Aparecida, Brazil -- a conference in which he played a role as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

“May this Assembly not be an elite group separated from the holy, faithful people of God,” the pope said. “Together with the people. Do not forget it. We are all part of the people of God.”

“Out of the people of God an elite group crops up, an elite illumined by one ideology or another, but this is not the Church. The Church is found in the breaking of the bread. The Church gives herself to all, without exclusion.”

According to a press release from the Latin American bishops’ conference, the goal of the Ecclesial Assembly is to “contemplate the reality of our peoples and the deepening challenges of the continent” while “reviving pastoral commitment and seeking new paths with a synodal key.”

Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos Vidarte of Trujillo, Peru and president of the Latin American bishops’ conference took part in the launch of the Ecclesial Assembly, together with the president of the Brazilian bishops’ conference Bishop Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo and Archbishop Rogelio Cabrera López of Monterrey, the president of the Mexican bishops’ conference.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, also participated in the virtual event. The launch culminated with a Mass in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe presided over by the archbishop of Mexico City, Cardinal Carlos Aguiar Retes.

Pope Francis said that prayer is essential in preparation for this assembly. He added: “The Lord is among us. May the Lord make himself heard.”


Polish Catholic Church’s ‘Day of Islam’ seeks to ‘overcome prejudices’

CNA Staff, Jan 25, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).- The Polish Catholic Church’s annual “Day of Islam” on Tuesday is an opportunity to overcome prejudices, a bishop who oversees Catholic-Muslim dialogue in the country has said.

Bishop Henryk Ciereszko said that the commemoration, on Jan. 26, would help “to overcome aversion and prejudices, to point out what unites Muslims and Christians.”

Ciereszko, the auxiliary bishop of Białystok and the Polish bishops’ delegate for Catholic-Muslim dialogue, noted that the motto for this year’s event is “Christians and Muslims: Protecting Places of Worship Together.”

“It emphasizes the importance and role of those places, the Catholic churches and Muslim mosques, where God is worshiped, prayers are recited, and an encounter with God is experienced,” he said.

The Day of Islam is traditionally celebrated after the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, held on Jan. 18-25. This will be the 21st year that the Polish Church has marked the day, first commemorated in 2001. 

Muslims have lived continuously in Poland since the 14th century when Tatars settled in a territory that later became the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. For centuries, the Lipka Tatars’ cavalry regiments fought alongside Polish Catholics in wars. 

Today, there are an estimated 3,000 Tatars in Poland. The majority of the country’s Muslims are Sunnis from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Estimates of the total number of Muslims vary widely, but they are believed to comprise roughly 0.1% of Poland’s 38 million population. 

This year’s Day of Islam will be observed online due to the coronavirus pandemic. The principal celebration will be livestreamed on Jan. 26 at 6 p.m. local time. 

The program will include the reading of greetings from Catholic and Muslim leaders, as well as passages from the Bible and the Koran. An imam and a bishop will each recite prayers for their respective communities. 

The meeting will continue with Catholics reciting the Our Father and a call by the bishop to offer a sign of peace. It will end with a prayer by the Muslim representative and a blessing by the bishop.

Pope Francis prays for homeless man who died in freezing cold near St. Peter’s Square

Vatican City, Jan 24, 2021 / 07:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis prayed on Sunday for a homeless man who died near St. Peter’s Square amid freezing temperatures.

Speaking after the Angelus on Jan. 24, the pope led prayers for the 46-year-old Nigerian man who was reportedly found dead by volunteers from the Community of Sant’Egidio on Wednesday.

“Last Jan. 20, a few meters from St. Peter’s Square, a 46-year-old Nigerian homeless man named Edwin was found dead because of the cold,” the pope said.

“His story was added to that of many other homeless people who recently died in Rome in the same dramatic circumstances. Let us pray for Edwin.” 

He continued: “May we be reminded of the words of St. Gregory the Great, who, when faced with the death of a mendicant from cold, said that Masses would not be celebrated that day because it was like Good Friday.” 

“Let us think about Edwin. Let us think of what this man, 46 years old, felt in the cold, ignored by all, abandoned, even by us. Let us pray for him.”

According to the news website RomaToday, Edwin was the fourth homeless person to die this year in Rome, where there are an estimated 8,000 homeless people. Many sleep along the edge of Bernini’s colonnade, the semi-circular columns enclosing St. Peter’s Square.

On the same day that Edwin’s body was discovered, the Vatican began vaccinating homeless people in its care against COVID-19.

An initial group of around 25 homeless people received the first dose of the vaccine on Jan. 20 in the atrium of the Paul VI Audience Hall at the Vatican.

Those receiving the vaccine are permanently housed in the care and residence facilities of the Office of Papal Charities, the Vatican department offering charitable assistance to the poor on behalf of the pope.

Pope Francis gave the Angelus address via livestream in the library of the Apostolic Palace, where the prayer has taken place since a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy.

He attended the event despite being forced to cancel three other public appearances on Sunday and Monday due to a resurgence of nerve pain that struck him at the end of 2020. 

He did not appear to be in pain as he gave the address standing before a lectern and frequently improvising his remarks.

The pope reflected on Sunday’s Gospel reading, Mark 1:14-20, in which Jesus takes up the call to repentance first issued by St. John the Baptist. He said that Christ’s message contained two fundamental themes: time and conversion.

“The time of salvation is fulfilled because Jesus has arrived. However, salvation is not automatic; salvation is a gift of love and as such offered to human freedom,” he said, noting that to receive this gift we must be open to conversion.

“It means to change mentality -- this is conversion, to change mentality -- and to change life: to no longer follow the examples of the world but those of God, who is Jesus; to follow Jesus, as Jesus had done, and as Jesus taught us. It is a decisive change of view and attitude,” he said.

He explained that an opposing force -- sin -- encourages us to affirm ourselves at the expense of others and God. This worldly mentality, he said, leads to deception and violence.

“This is the mentality of deceit that definitely has its origins in the father of deceit, the great pretender, the devil. He is the father of lies, as Jesus defines him,” he commented.

In contrast, Jesus invites us to recognize our need for God and his grace.

The 84-year-old pope said: “For each one of us the time in which we are able to receive redemption is brief: it is the duration of our life in this world. It is brief. Perhaps it seems long...”

He recalled giving the last rites to a “very good elderly man.”

“Before receiving the Eucharist and the Anointing of the Sick, he said this phrase to me: ‘My life has flown by,’ as if to say: I believed that it was eternal, but... ‘my life has flown by.’” 

“This is how we, the elderly, feel that life has passed away. It passes away. And life is a gift of God’s infinite love, but is also the time to prove our love for Him. For this reason every moment, every instant of our existence, is precious time to love God and to love our neighbor, and thereby enter into eternal life.”

The pope stressed that each phase of our lives can be “a privileged moment of encounter with the Lord.”

“Dear brothers and sisters, let us stay attentive and not let Jesus pass by without welcoming him. St. Augustine said, ‘I am afraid of God when he passes by.’ Afraid of what? Of not recognizing him, of not seeing him, of not welcoming him.”

“May the Virgin Mary help us to live each day, each moment, as the time of salvation, in which the Lord passes and calls us to follow him, every second of our life. And may she help us to convert from the mentality of the world, that of worldly reveries which are fireworks, to that of love and service.”

After reciting the Angelus, the pope noted that Jan. 24 is the Sunday of the Word of God. He was unable to celebrate a morning Mass marking the occasion in St. Peter’s Basilica due to sciatica. The Mass was offered instead by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

But the Holy See press office said on Sunday that the pope was able to give a special edition of the Bible to people representing various states of life in the Catholic Church. The presentation took place at the pope’s residence, the Casa Santa Marta, instead of at the Basilica as planned.

Speaking after the Angelus, the pope said: “This Sunday is dedicated to the Word of God. One of the great gifts of our time is the rediscovery of Sacred Scripture in the life of the Church at all levels.” 

“Never before has the Bible been so accessible to all: in all languages and now also in audiovisual and digital formats. St. Jerome, the 16th centenary of whose death I recently commemorated, says that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” 

He thanked parishes for helping people to listen to God’s word and urged Catholics to carry a small edition of the Gospels in their pocket or purse.

The pope also noted that the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ends on Jan. 25 with vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome. He will not attend the event because of sciatic pain, but he invited Catholics to join in the occasion spiritually through prayer. 

Pope Francis then recalled that his message for this year’s World Communications Day was published the day before, on Jan. 23, 

He said: “Today is also the memorial of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalists. Yesterday, the message for World Communications Day was released, entitled ‘“Come and See”: Communicating by Encountering People as They Are.’” 

“I urge all journalists and communicators to ‘go and see,’ even where no one wants to go, and to bear witness to the truth,” he said.

The pope concluded by greeting families that are currently struggling. 

“Take courage, let us go forth! Let us pray for these families, and to the extent possible let us be their neighbors,” he said.

Bishops reiterate need for direct Israel-Palestine negotiations if there is to be peace

CNA Staff, Jan 24, 2021 / 06:01 am (CNA).- A group of Christian leaders who advocate for the Holy Land this week reiterated a call for Israeli and Palestinian authorities to negotiate directly for the sake of peace in the region. They also encouraged Israel to make COVID-19 vaccines accessible to Palestinians.

The Holy Land Coordination group, which was founded by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, is comprised of bishops from the U.S. and Europe, as well as a bishop of the Church of England. Since 2000, the group has taken an annual trip to the Holy Land, and promotes awareness, action, and prayer for the region.

During the bishops’ January 2020 trip, they visited Christians in Gaza, East Jerusalem, and Ramallah. The bishops met virtually in January 2021 with Christians in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel.

Due to the pandemic, this year is the first since the group’s founding that the bishops have not been able to meet in the Holy Land.

“The Christian community, though small, is an important guarantor of social cohesion and a bearer of hope for a better future. We eagerly await a time when Christians from across the world can once again make pilgrimages to the Holy Land to witness and support this first-hand. Until that point, we encourage our communities to provide any assistance that may be possible and hold all the region’s peoples in our prayers,” the group wrote in a Jan. 22 communiqué.

The delegation included Bishop David Malloy of Rockford, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace.

The delegation noted that the absence of pilgrims to the Holy Land in the past year has exacerbated unemployment and poverty.

The bishops concluded that these factors, along with continuing political conflict, culminate to mean, “there is today less cause for optimism than at any time in recent history.”

Security borders have impaired Palestinians’ ability to work and travel, including travel to Muslim and Christian holy places, while Jewish settlements in the West Bank are a continuing source of tension.

Israel suspended the annexation of some parts of the West Bank during August 2020 as part of its normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates, but tensions remain.

“The lack of political progress, along with relentless expansion of illegal settlements and the impact of Israel’s Nation-State law, continues to erode any prospect of a peaceful two-state solution,” the bishops wrote.

The “nation-state law” refers to a 2018 measure which defined Israel as the “historic homeland of the Jewish people” who have “a singular right to national self-determination within it.” The Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem has criticized the law as discriminatory against Israel’s Christians.

The bishops also encouraged Israel to make COVID-19 vaccines accessible for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel has one of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 vaccination in the world, but until this week was not allowing vaccines into Gaza or the West Bank.

The Vatican recognized the state of Palestine during May 2015. During May 2020, the Holy See reaffirmed its support of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, and respect for the borders internationally recognized before 1967.

In a July 2020 statement, released in response to possible Israeli action to annex Palestinian territories, the Holy See reiterated that Israel and the State of Palestine “have the right to exist and to live in peace and security, within internationally recognized borders.”

Then-US president Donald Trump and Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu in January 2020 proposed a two-state peace plan for Israel and Palestine, which included an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem.

Trump insisted that Jerusalem would also remain “Israel’s undivided— very important— undivided capital.” The United States moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem in 2017.

Under the plan, none of Jerusalem’s Old City or territory within the current security wall would be ceded to the Palestinian state. The agreement also preserves the status quo policy regarding control of various religious sites, including the site of the Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque, and, under the proposal, Muslims would still have access to the site.

Trump's proposal for peace called for the creation of a Palestinian state, but gave Israel sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank. The Palestinians reject this.

Palestinian leaders, the United Nations, and European and Arab countries oppose unilateral action from Israel and consider Israeli settlements on land captured in 1967 to be illegal, Reuters reports. Israelis who back annexation cite biblical, historical, and political roots in the West Bank territory.

The plan also proposes the construction of a “West Bank-Gaza Tunnel” to connect the two halves of Palestine, and that a third of the Gaza Strip be designated as a “high-tech manufacturing industrial zone.”

As part of the plan, Trump also pledged money to the Palestinian state for job creation and poverty reduction. Trump said that if Abbas and the Palestinian Authority “choose the path to peace,” that the United States and other countries “will be there, we will be there to help you in so many different ways.”

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden is likely to reverse some of Trump’s policies in the Middle East, pledging as a candidate to restore humanitarian aid to Palestinians and opposing Israeli settlement activity in the occupied West Bank, NPR reports.

Vatican archbishop: Turn off your phone and open the Gospel

Vatican City, Jan 24, 2021 / 04:00 am (CNA).- A Vatican archbishop urged Catholics to turn off their cell phones and open the Gospel instead as he celebrated Mass marking the Sunday of the Word of God.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, issued the appeal on Jan. 24 in a homily prepared by Pope Francis for the Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. 

“Let us set the Gospel in a place where we can remember to open it daily, perhaps at the beginning and at the end of the day, so that amid all those words that ring in our ears, there may also be a few verses of the word of God that can touch our hearts,” Fisichella said. 

“To be able to do this, let us ask the Lord for the strength to turn off the television and open the Bible, to turn off our cell phone and open the Gospel.”

The archbishop celebrated the Mass in place of Pope Francis, who was unable to attend because of a resurgence of the nerve pain that struck him at the end of 2020. The Mass was attended by a small congregation due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization is the Vatican department responsible for promoting the Sunday of the Word of God, which the pope introduced in 2019.

Reading the homily that Pope Francis intended to deliver, Fisichella reflected on the day’s Gospel reading, Mark 1:14-20, in which Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God.

He said that Christ’s declaration that the Kingdom was “at hand” was “the leitmotif of his preaching, the heart of his message.”

This proclamation is not only a source of consolation but also a call to conversion, he noted.

“‘Repent,’ says Jesus, immediately after proclaiming God’s closeness. For, thanks to his closeness, we can no longer distance ourselves from God and from others,” he said.

“The time when we could live thinking only of ourselves is now over. To do so is not Christian, for those who experience God’s closeness cannot ignore their neighbors or treat them with indifference.”

Pope Francis declared the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time a special day for celebrating the Word of God in the Church when he issued the apostolic letterAperuit illis,” on the 1,600th anniversary of the death of St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in the fourth century.

The theme of this year’s Sunday of the Word of God -- the second since the pope instituted the celebration -- is “Holding fast to the Word of life,” from Philippians 2:16. 

In his homily, Fisichella observed that Jesus addressed his call first to simple Galilean fishermen, rather than to scriptural experts, beginning at the periphery rather than the center “in order to tell us too that no one is far from God’s heart.”

“Everyone can receive his word and encounter him in person,” he said. 

He emphasized the significance of Jesus’ invitation to the disciples: “Follow me, I will make you become fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). 

“If he had told them: ‘Follow me, I will make you Apostles, you will be sent into the world to preach the Gospel in the power of the Spirit; you will be killed, but you will become saints,’ we can be sure that Peter and Andrew would have answered: ‘Thanks, but we’ll stick to our nets and our boats!’” 

“But Jesus spoke to them in terms of their own livelihood: ‘You are fishermen, and you will become fishers of men.’ Struck by those words, they come to realize that lowering their nets for fish was too little, whereas putting out into the deep in response to the word of Jesus was the secret of true joy.” 

The same is true of us, Fisichella said. “As he did with those fishermen, he waits for us on the shore of our life. With his word, he wants to change us, to invite us to live fuller lives and to put out into the deep together with him.”

The Vatican’s liturgy congregation issued a note last month encouraging Catholic parishes around the world to celebrate the Sunday of the Word of God with renewed vigor.

In the note published Dec. 19, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments suggested ways that Catholics should prepare for the day devoted to the Bible.

The congregation listed 10 guidelines for marking the day. It encouraged parishes to consider an entrance procession with the Book of the Gospels “or simply placing the Book of the Gospels on the altar.”

It advised them to follow the indicated readings “without replacing or removing them, and using only versions of the Bible approved for liturgical use,” while recommending the singing of the responsorial psalm.

The congregation urged bishops, priests, and deacons to help people to understand Sacred Scripture through their homilies. It also highlighted the importance of leaving room for silence, which “by favoring meditation, allows the word of God to be received inwardly by the listener.”


Before giving the final blessing, the archbishop gave copies of a special edition of the Bible, prepared for the occasion, to people representing various states of life in the Church. They included Lorenzo Pellegrini, a soccer player for A.S. Roma, and his family, and a student from Pakistan studying at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome.

Pellegrini captained the Rome side the day before and scored the winner as they gained a 4-3 revenge victory over Spezia, a team that met the pope earlier this week after eliminating Roma from Italy’s annual cup competition.

Describing the Bible as “a love letter” written by God, Fisichella encouraged Catholics to carry Holy Scripture with them at all times, in a pocket or on a smartphone, and to keep it in “a worthy place” at home.

Concluding his homily, the archbishop noted that the Gospel readings in the current liturgical year are taken from St. Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four Gospels.

“Why not read it at home too, even a brief passage each day,” he suggested. “It will make us feel God’s closeness to us and fill us with courage as we make our way through life.”

Vatican gradually to defund some mission territories

Vatican City, Jan 23, 2021 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- Earlier this month the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples sent a letter to the bishops of some 1,100 Catholic territories and announced the gradual reduction of the financial support they regularly receive from the Vatican.

Since apostolic vicariates and prelatures are regarded by the Vatican as mission territories, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, and the vast majority of them are in the poorest parts of the world.

The Vatican has traditionally supported these jurisdictions via the “Universal Solidarity Fund” of the Pontifical Mission Societies. The main source of income of the fund comes from the collection of World Mission Sunday, celebrated every year on the second to last Sunday of October.  The fund is independent from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

But some bishops’ conferences in Latin America contacted by CNA claim that the local nuncios have announced a significant cut in the Vatican financial support and have requested local bishops from non-missionary territories to make up for the difference.

Speaking with CNA on Jan. 20, Archbishop Giampietro Dal Toso, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and president of the Pontifical Mission Societies, stressed that “the letter is in no way intended to cut the support we are giving to the diocesan missions. It instead aims at a better distribution of the money, following the criteria of stewardship.”
It means, he explained, that “if there are dioceses or bishops able to carry on with their resources, they could renounce to their share and give the opportunity to other, poorest dioceses to get more.”

Archbishop Dal Toso stressed that “along with Aid to the Church in Need, the Pontifical Mission Societies only support pastoral projects. This is very important for the future of the Church.” By pastoral, the archbishop means funds that go to specific expenses related to the work of evangelization, as opposed to social justice funds, which are usually more readily available.

According to 2016 figures, the Congregation (also known with the Latin name of Propaganda Fide) has jurisdiction over 186 archdioceses, 785 dioceses, 82 apostolic vicariates, 39 apostolic prefectures, 4 apostolic administrations, 6 missiones sui iuris, 1 territorial abbacy, and 6 military ordinariates.

In 2019 the Societies distributed some $130 million, all of it collected during World Mission Sunday. There are no figures regarding the 2020 collection, but Dal Toso said he expects to collect less money than in 2019, because of the economic crisis as a consequence of COVID 19.

The financial support to each diocese varies according to factors such as the poverty of the region, the exchange rate of hard currency and specific needs, but  the average annual support is around $20,000.

According to Archbishop Dal Toso, although the numbers might not seem that big, the money delivered by the Mission Societies is very significant for the missionary territories.

The Vatican, for example, delivers an average of $460 per month to every seminarian on missionary territory.

The Mission Societies also provide financial support to retired bishops, which is very important in poor regions where Catholics are a minority and the local community cannot afford supporting them.

Archbishop Dal Toso said that the letter sent to the missionary territories is asking whether some of these bishops could renounce such financial aid.

“This is not new, since the Congregation delivered a similar request in 2015, and some 30 bishops were able to renounce to the financial support,” Dal Toso said.

Pope Francis forced to miss more events due to recurrent nerve pain

Vatican City, Jan 23, 2021 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis has been forced to cancel three public appearances scheduled for Sunday and Monday due to a recurrence of the nerve pain that struck him at the end of 2020. 

The Holy See press office announced on Jan. 23 that because of sciatica the 84-year-old pope would be unable to celebrate Mass marking the Sunday of the Word of God in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The Mass, on Jan. 24, will be celebrated instead by Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization.

But Pope Francis will still lead the Angelus prayer at noon on Sunday in the library of the Apostolic Palace, where the event has taken place since a resurgence of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy.

The pope’s annual “state of the world” address to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, scheduled for Jan. 25, will now take place at a later date.

Francis will no longer preside at vespers for the conclusion of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, also scheduled to take place on Monday. Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, will now lead the event at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, one of the four papal basilicas of Rome.

The pope had a bout of sciatic pain in the final days of 2020 that meant he was unable to preside at the Vatican’s liturgies on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

He had been scheduled to lead vespers on Dec. 31 and offer Mass on Jan. 1 for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, in St. Peter’s Basilica.

The pope is due to resume his foreign travels in March when he is expected to visit Iraq. But a question mark hangs over the visit because of concerns about large gatherings amid the pandemic and a recent upsurge in violence in the Middle Eastern country.

Sciatica is caused by pressure or rubbing on the sciatic nerve, which starts in the lower back and runs down the back of the thigh and leg to the foot. Common symptoms include shooting pains in the back of the legs.

Pope Francis has suffered from the condition for a number of years. He spoke about it during an in-flight press conference returning from a trip to Brazil in July 2013.

He said that “the worst thing” that had happened in the first four months of his pontificate “was an attack of sciatica -- really! -- that I had the first month, because I was sitting in an armchair to do interviews and it hurt.”

“Sciatica is very painful, very painful! I don’t wish it on anyone!” Francis said.

Pope Francis: Witness to the truth by exposing ‘fake news’

Vatican City, Jan 23, 2021 / 04:15 am (CNA).- Pope Francis issued a new warning about misinformation on Saturday, weeks after he was the subject of a viral “fake news” story. 

Writing in his World Communications Day message, released on Jan. 23, the pope said that “the risk of misinformation being spread on social media” was now widely recognized.

“We have known for some time that news and even images can be easily manipulated, for any number of reasons, at times simply for sheer narcissism,” he wrote. 

“Being critical in this regard is not about demonizing the internet, but is rather an incentive to greater discernment and responsibility for contents both sent and received.” 

“All of us are responsible for the communications we make, for the information we share, for the control that we can exert over fake news by exposing it. All of us are to be witnesses of the truth: to go, to see and to share.”

Earlier this month a false report that Italian police had arrested the pope amid a Vatican “blackout” was widely shared on the internet. The report was posted on a Canadian website which had also previously posted a fictitious claim that former U.S. President Barack Obama had been arrested on espionage charges. 

In his message, the pope also stressed the internet’s positive qualities.

“Digital technology gives us the possibility of timely first-hand information that is often quite useful,” he said.

“We can think of certain emergency situations where the internet was the first to report the news and communicate official notices. It is a powerful tool, which demands that all of us be responsible as users and consumers.”

“Potentially we can all become witnesses to events that otherwise would be overlooked by the traditional media, offer a contribution to society and highlight more stories, including positive ones.”

The pope signed the message on Jan. 23, the Vigil of the Memorial of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writers and journalists. 

World Communications Day, established by Pope Paul VI in 1967, will be celebrated in many countries this year on Sunday, May 16. The day will be observed as the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord in places where it is transferred from Thursday, May 13 to Sunday.

In his message, Pope Francis issued an impassioned call to journalists to recommit themselves to “original investigative reporting.”

“Insightful voices have long expressed concern about the risk that original investigative reporting in newspapers and television, radio and web newscasts is being replaced by a reportage that adheres to a standard, often tendentious narrative,” he wrote.

“This approach is less and less capable of grasping the truth of things and the concrete lives of people, much less the more serious social phenomena or positive movements at the grassroots level.”

He continued: “The crisis of the publishing industry risks leading to a reportage created in newsrooms, in front of personal or company computers and on social networks, without ever ‘hitting the streets,’ meeting people face to face to research stories or to verify certain situations first-hand.”

“Unless we open ourselves to this kind of encounter, we remain mere spectators, for all the technical innovations that enable us to feel immersed in a larger and more immediate reality.”

“Any instrument proves useful and valuable only to the extent that it motivates us to go out and see things that otherwise we would not know about, to post on the internet news that would not be available elsewhere, to allow for encounters that otherwise would never happen.”

Pope Francis suggested specific topics for journalists to investigate. 

He said: “We can risk reporting the pandemic, and indeed every crisis, only through the lens of the richer nations, of ‘keeping two sets of books.’ For example, there is the question of vaccines, and medical care in general, which risks excluding the poorer peoples.”

“Who would keep us informed about the long wait for treatment in the poverty-stricken villages of Asia, Latin America and Africa? Social and economic differences on the global level risk dictating the order of distribution of anti-COVID vaccines, with the poor always at the end of the line and the right to universal healthcare affirmed in principle, but stripped of real effect.”

“Yet even in the world of the more fortunate, the social tragedy of families rapidly slipping into poverty remains largely hidden; people who are no longer ashamed to wait in line before charitable organizations in order to receive a package of provisions do not tend to make news.”

The pope also praised the “courage and commitment” of journalists, camera operators, editors, and directors who risk their lives to uncover the truth.

“Thanks to their efforts, we now know, for example, about the hardships endured by persecuted minorities in various parts of the world, numerous cases of oppression and injustice inflicted on the poor and on the environment, and many wars that otherwise would be overlooked,” he said.

“It would be a loss not only for news reporting, but for society and for democracy as a whole, were those voices to fade away. Our entire human family would be impoverished.”

The theme of this year’s World Communications Day, the 55th commemoration, is “‘Come and See’ (Jn 1:46) Communicating by Encountering People as They Are.”

The pope quoted approvingly advice that the Spanish Blessed Manuel Lozano Garrido (1920-1971) once gave fellow journalists: “Open your eyes with wonder to what you see, let your hands touch the freshness and vitality of things, so that when others read what you write, they too can touch first-hand the vibrant miracle of life.” 

Francis also cited William Shakespeare as he condemned the “empty rhetoric” that he said abounded in public life. 

Quoting from “The Merchant of Venice,” the pope wrote: “This or that one ‘speaks an infinite deal of nothing... His reasons are as two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff: you shall seek all day ere you find them, and when you have them, they are not worth the search.’”

“The blistering words of the English playwright also apply to us as Christian communicators. The Good News of the Gospel spread throughout the world as a result of person-to-person, heart-to-heart encounters with men and women who accepted the invitation to ‘come and see,’ and were struck by the ‘surplus’ of humanity that shone through the gaze, the speech and the gestures of those who bore witness to Jesus Christ.”

The pope said that all Christians faced a challenge: “to communicate by encountering people, where they are and as they are.”

He concluded with a prayer:

Lord, teach us to move beyond ourselves,
and to set out in search of truth.
Teach us to go out and see,
teach us to listen,
not to entertain prejudices
or draw hasty conclusions.
Teach us to go where no one else will go,
to take the time needed to understand,
to pay attention to the essentials,
not to be distracted by the superfluous,
to distinguish deceptive appearances from the truth.
Grant us the grace to recognize your dwelling places in our world
and the honesty needed to tell others what we have seen.

As eviction crisis looms, priest highlights the legal needs of the poor

Denver Newsroom, Jan 23, 2021 / 02:00 am (CNA).- In the waning months of 2020, the United States watched as the Senate conducted hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, a Catholic mother of seven. President Donald Trump had nominated Barrett to fill the Supreme Court seat left by the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. 

Among the observers was Father Pius Pietrzyk, OP, a canon lawyer and among the few Catholic priests to, like Barrett, hold a Senate-confirmed political appointment.

In late 2009, President Barack Obama nominated Pietrzyk to serve on the board of the Legal Services Corporation, a nonpartisan body that gives grants to local legal aid offices to provide free civil legal services for the poor.

“I never thought I'd like the work as much as I have. I've enjoyed it very much. And a big part of that is because I've seen the people who have been helped by it,” Pietrzyk told CNA.

“But I also see, in a much bigger way, the people who continue to need to be helped by it. And there's far more need certainly than we have resources. But we keep trudging along doing our best and helping as many people as we can.”

Pietrzyk is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph, and chairs the Pastoral Studies department at St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, California, where he also teaches canon law. 

Before being ordained to the priesthood in 2008, he practiced civil law for several years at a large firm in Chicago. 

Pietrzyk received the news of his appointment to the LSC’s board in early 2010. As a lawyer, he had heard of the Legal Services Corporation and was vaguely aware of what they did. But his appointment was still a big surprise. 

“It was completely out of the blue for me. I never saw this coming,” he said. 

'Fundamental disparities'

The Legal Services Corporation is a 501(c)(3) corporation created in 1974 with bipartisan Congressional sponsorship. 

Congress appropriates money to the LSC each year— for 2021, some $465 million in funding is expected. The LSC does not itself provide legal services, but rather provides grants to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs throughout the country. 

People earning 125% or less of the federal poverty line are eligible for the services that the local legal aid agencies provide. Pietrzyk said some of the common civil law issues that the aid agencies deal with are issues of domestic violence, housing (such as landlord-tenant disputes), elder law, and veterans issues. 

In civil cases, many people living in poverty cannot afford lawyers, and often have to represent themselves, making them less likely to win their cases. 

“You look in the housing courts in the United States, and most of the landlords are represented by a lawyer, and almost none of the tenants are represented by a lawyer. And so you've got these fundamental disparities when it comes to as basic a human need and human right really as housing issues,” he said.

So how did a Dominican priest get picked for a political appointment like this?

Apart from Pietrzyk’s legal qualifications for the position, there was another reason his name came up as a possible candidate. 

By tradition, at least two members of the LSC’s board are “client-eligible,” meaning they themselves qualify for the free services that they oversee. 

Because Dominicans take a vow of poverty, Pietrzyk is technically poor. So when the Senate was looking for potential nominees to recommend to President Obama, a Senate staffer suggested looking for a nominee who had taken a vow of poverty. 

Pietrzyk is quick to point out that his Senate hearing was not the flashy, high-profile media affair that often accompanies hearings for Supreme Court nominees, such as Barrett. 

Instead, his hearing was conducted as a conference call with several Democratic staffers, away from the public eye. Pietrzyk described the room where it took place as little more than a “cloakroom.” 

Still, as you might expect, any nominee for a Senate-confirmed position has to be vetted by the FBI. The FBI conducted interviews with several people whose names Pietrzyk provided, as well as with several of Pietrzyk’s parishioners and neighbors. 

At one point during the vetting process, Pietrzyk was studying in Rome. Since the FBI lacks jurisdiction outside U.S. territorial boundaries, a retired State Department agent living in Europe met with Father Pietrzyk and conducted additional interviews in Rome. 

“I had really nothing to hide, nothing that's going to cause a major objection,” Pietrzyk laughed.  

“I wasn't a foreign agent. I wasn't engaging in some sort of heavy illegal practices. That made it a lot easier. I had no complicated financial situations that would cause embarrassment to the President or anything like that.”

Although Pietrzyk says he is not aware of any major ideological objections to his appointment, he says there was some suspicion in the Senate that he fit the mold of a “client eligible” candidate. After all, he says, not many poor people have a University of Chicago law degree. 

“And while I live a vow of poverty, it wasn't as if there was any danger of me being on the streets. I don't think my religious community was going to throw me out on the street anytime soon,” he pointed out. 

“So that caused, I think, a little bit of grumbling from some people, but it never came back to me, and it never affected my nomination, and it never affected the vote in the Senate.”

The Senate confirmed Pietrzyk’s nomination on March 29, 2010. He said he regularly wears his religious habit to board meetings, and has earned the respect of his fellow board members. 

“My other board members have accepted me as a Catholic priest, as Catholic religious, and have received that whole-heartedly and have just been very professional to me,” Pietrzyk said. 

“We rarely have, if ever, ideological disputes. That camaraderie and friendship and professionalism has been part of what's made this such a rewarding experience for me, in addition to the stories that we hear of the poor people who are helped by the services. And some of them are really quite compelling.”

In Dec. 2019, Pietrzyk was further elevated to Vice-Chairman of the LSC’s board. 

'We haven't seen the worst of the poverty'

Pietrzyk said the work of the Legal Services Corporation is particularly important today, as millions of Americans face eviction from their homes because of the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. 

A handful of states have made it illegal for landlords to evict tenants during the pandemic, but many have not. In a July 2020 survey done by the LSC, 95% of their grantees reported an increase in eviction cases. 

Late last year, Congress extended a moratorium on evictions nationwide until the end of this month, January 2021.

The federal moratorium applies when renters meet certain conditions, and data show that landlords in many states have ignored moratoria and have continued with evictions. The Eviction Lab, a research group at Princeton University, has tracked at least 200,000 evictions in the US since the pandemic began.

President Joe Biden has pledged to make an extension of the federal moratorium one of his top priorities, pledging to sign an executive order extending the moratorium until March on his first day in office. 

Unless that moratorium is later renewed, an estimated 30-40 million needy people are going to find themselves homeless. 

“We haven't seen the worst of the poverty that has been a result of the COVID, and we'll see it a lot worse once the evictions crisis really hits. And so being on the front lines and trying to ameliorate that as much as possible, I think, is something we all really need to be invested in,” Pietrzyk said. 

The need for affordable legal services for the poor has been highlighted recently as an important component of the country’s response to poverty, especially in light of the pandemic. 

Notably, Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote a Sept. 2020 op-ed calling for reform of the court system, noting that “even to accomplish the simplest task, hiring a lawyer is expensive — too expensive.” 

As one possible remedy, Gorsuch highlighted new programs in Utah and Arizona that will, beginning this year, permit “trained, non-lawyer legal professionals” to represent clients in some legal areas. 

Although the LSC is set to receive $465 million in funding this year, the largest dollar amount ever appropriated, the figure is significantly lower than what the LSC requested for 2021. The Trump administration recommended “zero funding” for the LSC every year that Trump was in office. 

Pietrzyk said he believes all Americans— regardless of income—  ought to be able to access the court system. 

“When you're a poor person, you can barely have money to feed your family. When you become a victim of injustice in the civil realm, you often have no outlet at all, because you can't hire a lawyer,” he said.  

“You oftentimes don't have the resources to be able to navigate yourself through a very complicated court system. And so what's left?...I do think that if you are committed to the rule of law and to justice for all Americans, that you have to be committed in some way to a program that provides civil legal services to the poor.”

The LSC’s grantees nationwide have seen a large increase in demand for their services during the pandemic. 

Guy Lescault, executive director of Legal Services Alabama, one of the LSC’s grantees, told CNA that at least 1.5 million Alabama residents cannot afford to hire lawyers when faced with civil issues like fighting an eviction. 

Alabama has long ranked near the bottom in terms of average income and racial disparities, Lescault said. Alabama does not have a state moratorium on evictions, and it is one of only two states nationwide— the other being Idaho— that has never appropriated any state money toward legal services for the poor. 

Typically, some 80% of their funding comes from the LSC, and last year they got some much-needed additional funding from the CARES Act and in the form of a grant from HHS. Legal Services Alabama is hoping to fill in gaps with their own fundraising. 

Legal Services Alabama operates a call center where people can call to get connected to free legal services, and they have seen a massive increase in demand since the pandemic started. 

Most calls they receive at the call center, Lescault says, are from needy people seeking information, such as asking about how to access SNAP (Food stamps). 

Lescault says they deal with many elderly people and children in their work. Moreover, the population served by LSA is about 70% female and nearly two-thirds black.

For serious situations, such as a poor person facing eviction or domestic violence, a call to the statewide call center often will be directed to one of their lawyers. 

“Domestic violence sort of goes hand in hand when you have lockdown orders, loss of employment, all of the other things. These issues, they’re not isolated, they’re all intertwined,” Lescault said. 

“What we should be doing is addressing some of this holistically. So we are trying as fast as our little feet can get us to apply for more domestic violence money from the Department of Justice that would give us additional staff to help address that issue around the state.”

'Make your town and community a better place'

Father Pietrzyk’s status as a Senate-confirmed Catholic priest is fairly unique. 

In 2015— five years after Father Pietrzyk’s confirmation— the Senate confirmed Father Paul Hurley to be U.S. Army Chief of Chaplains. The record of whether there have been any other priests confirmed by the Senate is thin.

Most Catholics will never get the chance to help the poor by way of a national political appointment. But Father Pietrzyk encouraged all Catholics to seek out opportunities to help the poor in their neighborhoods and local communities. 

“Where you can have a great deal of influence is at the local level, getting involved in helping people who are in need in your own community, in your own town, in your own city,” he said. 

“I think that's what Catholics need to be about— to try to avoid all of the political and ideological gamesmanship that goes on sometimes at the national level, and ask yourself what you can do to make your town and community a better place.”

This story originally aired on Catholic News Agency’s podcast, CNA Newsroom. It has been adapted for print. Listen to the segment below, beginning at 23:13. 

CNA Newsroom · Ep. 90: For God and Country  


George Weigel: Cardinal Cupich’s criticisms of Archbishop Gomez are baseless

CNA Staff, Jan 22, 2021 / 07:56 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Jose Gomez, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, showed courage in releasing a statement on the day of President Joe Biden’s inauguration despite opposition from within the conference, said papal biographer and longtime Church observer George Weigel.

Weigel said Gomez displayed “episcopal courage” at a time when others demanded “a reprise of the accommodationist approach to Catholic public officials long championed by Theodore McCarrick.”

Weigel, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Washington D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, penned an essay published in First Things on Friday, commenting on the statement released by Gomez on Inauguration Day and the subsequent criticism from Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago.

The statement from Gomez noted that Biden’s inauguration marks the first time in 60 years that a president has professed the Catholic faith. This presents a unique circumstance, Gomez said, particularly because Biden is in support of legal abortion and has pledged to increase taxpayer funding for it.

Cupich later criticized Gomez for releasing the statement, saying it was an “ill-considered statement” that “was crafted without the involvement of the Administrative Committee, a collegial consultation that is normal course for statements that represent and enjoy the considered endorsement of the American bishops.”

Norms from the bishops’ conference, however, indicate that standard procedures were followed ahead of the release of the statement.

Weigel argued that Gomez releasing a statement on the inauguration was in keeping with the recommendations from the Working Group on Engaging the New Administration created by the bishops at their November 2020 meeting.

As Gomez told his brother bishops, Weigel said, the working group had proposed “a letter to the new president from Archbishop Gomez, writing as a pastor. The letter would promise support for the new administration in areas of agreement. It would also identify administration policies, including abortion, that the bishops believed violated human dignity, and it would urge the new president to reassess his positions on these questions.”

The letter did just that, Weigel said. It noted numerous issues of concern among both political parties, but said that “the continued injustice of abortion remains the ‘preeminent priority’.”

“By any reasonable standard, Archbishop Gomez’s statement was balanced and measured; absent the controversy that erupted before and after its release,” Weigel said.

However, he said, “Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago and Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark put intense pressure on Archbishop Gomez to make no statement, as did the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre.”

Weigel said the controversy “underscored the statement’s firm, clear, and unambiguous stance on the 'preeminent priority' of the life issues—and thus heightened the impact of those parts of the statement that the dissident cardinals may have found so objectionable that they tried to quash the entire document.”

He said Cupich’s suggestion that Gomez was somehow acting against the norms of the bishops’ conference “is itself unfair and irresponsible.”

“To suggest that there was something unprecedented here is to falsify history,” he said. “What was indeed unprecedented, as Archbishop Gomez pointed out in his statement, was the situation of a president of the United States who professed a devout and heartfelt Catholicism and yet was publicly committed to facilitating grave moral evils.”

Read George Weigel's full essay in First Things here: