Catholic Church

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Pope Francis’ visit to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi Nov. 25–27 will bring healing and reconciliation to the East African nation that has suffered key setbacks in the recent past, senior bishops here say.

Kenya, a country with 14 million Catholics, recently announced the theme of the papal visit: “Stand firm and be strong.” Organizers expect nearly 1.5 million people to attend the papal Mass on Nov. 26 in Nairobi; there are nearly 4 million Catholics in the Archdiocese of Nairobi.

The pope’s Nov. 25-30 pilgrimage to Africa, also includes travel to Uganda and the Central African Republic. But in remarks Sunday to a crowd of faithful in St. Peter’s Square, Francis raised the possibility that security risks could cause the Central African Republic leg of his trip to change or even be scrapped.

Richard Wolf 10-30-2015

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Sixteen months after ruling narrowly that companies with religious objections cannot be forced to pay for employees’ contraceptives, the court faces a chorus of cries from religious charities, schools, and hospitals seeking to get out of the birth control business altogether.

The justices are scheduled to review several petitions Friday asking them to overturn federal appeals court decisions that would force the non-profit groups to opt out of the “contraceptive mandate” included in the Affordable Care Act, rather than receiving the blanket exclusion granted churches and other solely religious institutions.

If they agree to hear one or more of the cases, it will mark the fourth time in five years that President Obama’s prized health care law has come before the high court. And it will put the battle between religious freedom and reproductive rights front-and-center in next year’s presidential race.

the Web Editors 10-28-2015

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The Vatican announced Oct. 28 that Pope Francis will issue a document about the family as a follow up to the recently-concluded Synod on the Family, according to America magazine.

The Synod on the Family, a meeting of 270 bishops which discussed, among other things, communion for divorced and remarried Catholics and pastoral approaches to the LGBT population, lasted three weeks and ended Oct. 25. Pope Francis will release an “apostolic exhortation,” a type of papal document commonly released after a synod, which is one step down in authority from an authoritative papal encyclical. “Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’ recent writing on the environment, was an encyclical.

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Pope Francis named two new archbishops in Italy on Oct. 27, seen as strategic appointments for the pontiff’s push to create a “poor church.”

Matteo Maria Zuppi will leave his position as an auxiliary bishop of Rome to take up his new post in Bologna, in central Italy. And Corrado Lorefice, a parish priest in the Sicilian city of Noto, has been named archbishop of Palermo.

Both are relatively young to receive such high office; Zuppi turned 60 this month, while Lorefice has just celebrated his 53rd birthday. But more importantly, the new archbishops have adhered to the pontiff’s wish to prioritize caring for the poor.

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My rabbinic colleague, David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, issued a “glass half full” report earlier this month, noting that “… over the last several years there’s been a steady increase in the percentage of people who live in countries that … have serious restrictions on religious freedom.”

At the same time, he noted, “we’ve seen enormous expansion of interfaith efforts on almost every continent to try and address the challenges.”

Much of that “enormous expansion of interfaith efforts” can be traced to the historic Nostra Aetate (Latin for “In Our Time”) Declaration that the world’s Catholic bishops adopted 50 years ago at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council.

Sister Joan Chittister, center, in Chiapas, Mexico. Image via Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Penn. / RNS

Veteran Catholic writer Tom Roberts thought he knew Sister Joan Chittister — the maverick Benedictine nun who dares speak her mind to her church.

He didn’t.

When Roberts, editor at large for the National Catholic Reporter, went to interview her three years ago in Erie, Pa., at the community where she entered religious life at age 16, a secret she’s held for a lifetime came to light.

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The most significant and contested gathering of Roman Catholic bishops in the last 50 years formally ended on Oct. 25 after three weeks of debate and dispute, but the arguments over who “won” and who “lost” are only beginning.

The synod of 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world was the second in a year called by Pope Francis to address how and whether Catholicism could adapt its teachings to the changing realities of modern family life. Traditionalists had taken a hard line against any openings, especially after last October’s meeting seemed to point toward possible reforms.

While the delegates made hundreds of suggestions on a host of issues, two took center stage, in part because they represented a barometer for the whole question of change: Could the church be more welcoming to gays, and was there a way divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Communion without an annulment?

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The overriding interest in the global meeting of Roman Catholic bishops that finishes here on Oct. 25 has centered on whether the churchmen will actually do anything in the end — as in vote to make changes in church doctrines or policies — or leave well enough alone.

In reality, the gathering of 270 bishops from around the world, called a synod, has no authority to legislate doctrinal or other changes, and wasn’t expected to try anything that bold anyway.

Its real purpose — thanks to reforms instituted by Pope Francis — is to discuss issues openly and frankly, and to advise the pontiff about what they think the church ought to do about the challenges facing families today, or, as is likely the case for this divided synod, to kick the hard questions upstairs for him to decide.

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The rows of seats in the synod hall, where Catholic bishops are meeting to discuss family issues, are filled with bishops and cardinals — all male. To find any women, look to the back of the room.

The women’s distance from the heart of the synod hall reflects fears raised by women’s groups that their participation is a mere token on the Vatican’s part.

There are 270 bishops and cardinals participating in the synod and voting on its outcome. A number of other participants, including lay couples and representatives from other churches, have been invited to give their opinions but will not be able to make decisions on the final text. That includes more than two dozen women who have been called to present their views.

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The eight American bishops taking part in a Vatican summit on family life stay at a huge seminary built high on a hill overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica and the rest of the Eternal City.

It’s a lovely place with spacious apartments for each bishop and any amenity they might need.

But for all that, it may be getting a tad uncomfortable.

In the latest installment of an increasingly sharp exchange conducted via the media, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput on Oct. 19 rejected what he took as a swipe at him by Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, also a member of the U.S. delegation at this gathering of global bishops.

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The morning prayer that starts each session of a major gathering of Catholic churchmen underway here is an important chance for the 270 cardinals and bishops from around the world to set a meditative tone for what are contentious debates about church teachings on sexuality and family life.

With Pope Francis leading the way, the prelates seated in a large Vatican lecture hall chant the traditional Latin prayers pausing near the end for a brief reflection on the day’s Scripture by one of the bishops at the meeting, known as a synod.

Yet even that moment of spiritual peace is not always a sanctuary from the tensions roiling the three-week meeting that ends Oct. 25.

Archbishop John J. Myers. Image via Paul Haring / Catholic News Service / RNS

Even as Pope Francis and Catholic leaders from around the world debate ways to make the Catholic Church more inclusive, Newark Archbishop John Myers has given his priests strict guidelines on refusing Communion to Catholics who, for example, support gay marriage or whose own marriage is not valid in the eyes of the church.

In the two-page memo, Myers also orders parishes and Catholic institutions not to host people or organizations that disagree with church teachings.

He says Catholics, “especially ministers and others who represent the Church, should not participate in or be present at religious events or events intended to endorse or support those who reject or ignore Church teaching and Canon Law.”

Mussie Zerai. Image via Alessandro Bianchi / REUTERS / RNS

A surge of migrant deaths in deadly voyages across the Mediterranean Sea has become a modern-day refugee crisis.

But the Rev. Mussie Zerai, a 40-year-old Roman Catholic priest from tiny Eritrea, north of Ethiopia, has moved to help migrants trapped in the North African deserts and rickety wooden boats drifting across the sea.

“It is my duty and moral obligation as a priest to help these people. For me it’s simple: Jesus said we must love one another as we love ourselves,” Zerai said in a telephone interview.

The little-known priest, now based in Rome and Switzerland, was among this year’s nominees for the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Pope Francis. (The prize, announced Friday, was awarded to the National Dialogue Quartet, which helped build a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia.)

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Pope Francis on Oct. 14 asked forgiveness for a series of scandals that have befallen the Vatican and Rome.

Francis did not specify the scandalous events to which he was referring, although the departure of a gay cleric earlier this month may well have been on the pontiff’s mind.

“I ask you for forgiveness for the scandals that have occurred recently either in Rome or in the Vatican,” the pope said during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.

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Pope Francis’ first U.S. visit gave his already-high favorability ratings only a modest bounce with most Americans — and no bounce at all among Catholics.

Yet his three-city September tour — from Congress to the United Nations and from cathedrals to a prison — generated significant goodwill toward the Catholic Church, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

Pew’s survey, conducted just days after the pope returned to Rome, was released Oct. 7 and offers a snapshot of his initial impact.

The top finding: “Four times as many U.S. adults say their opinion of the Catholic Church is better now because of Pope Francis as people who say their impression has gotten worse,” said Greg Smith, associate director of research and co-author of the report.

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Divorce, cohabitation, and gay relationships are just some of the issues up for discussion at the Vatican synod, which continues through Oct. 24. It follows a questionnaire consultation with Catholic groups after a meeting on family issues a year ago.

Some critics say that more women should have been included in the process. Only bishops can vote at a synod, but about 30 women have been invited as auditors.

Mary McAleese, former president of Ireland, said she was skeptical that any real change would come from the synod. “If I wanted expertise on the family, I honestly cannot say that the first thing that would come into my mind would be to call together 300 celibate males, who between them, that we know of, have never raised a child,” she said on Saturday, speaking at an event hosted by gay Catholics.

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Pope Francis returned to Rome Sept. 28 after the longest and perhaps most challenging foreign journey of his pontificate: a trip that lasted 10 days and took him from the communist outpost of Cuba to the capitalist superpower of the U.S., where the popular pontiff faced some of his toughest critics — both inside and outside the church.

Now comes the hard part.

On Oct. 4 in the Vatican, Francis formally opens a three-week meeting of some 270 bishops from around the world who will discuss — or, more likely, argue vociferously about — church teachings on family life, a topic that encompasses hot-button questions about the church’s views on divorce, homosexuality, and cohabitation.

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On his first full day of the visit, Francis praised U.S. bishops for their “courage” in facing the difficult moments of the explosive clergy abuse scandal “without fear of self-criticism and at the cost of mortification and great sacrifice.”

Listeners, however, were shocked, mindful that the church has spent hundreds of millions in settlement payouts — often after years of protracted legal fights — to compensate for decades of bishops who protected, even promoted, abusive priests.

He sounded “tone-deaf,” said Vatican expert the Rev. Thomas Reese.

Image via REUTERS / Georgia Department of Corrections / Handout via Reuters / RNS

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday that the pope, back in Rome after a six-day visit to the United States, sent a letter through a representative, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.

“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Vigano wrote.

“In reaching its decision, the Board thoroughly reviewed all information and documents pertaining to the case, including the latest information presented by Gissendaner’s representatives,” a release sent from board chairman Terry Barnard said. No other explanation of the decision was given.

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In a deeply personal talk that blended poetry and a new set of marching orders for the U.S. hierarchy, Pope Francis on Sept. 23 told U.S. bishops to reject “harsh and divisive language” and to reach out to the world, especially those in need.

The bishops, he said, should embrace an approach “which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love.”

Their mission, Francis told some 300 bishops gathered for noonday prayer in St. Matthew’s Cathedral, “is not about preaching complicated doctrines, but joyfully proclaiming Christ, who died and rose for our sake.”

“I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly,” Francis told them, repeatedly stressing the word “dialogue” and urging them to be “promoters of the culture of encounter.”

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