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Pope Francis meets 2,500 refugees in South Sudan

Pope Francis meets a boy living in an IDP camp during a gathering in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 4, 2023 / 10:25 am (CNA).

Pope Francis was greeted by cheers and ululations on Saturday as he arrived at a meeting with roughly 2,500 South Sudanese refugees.

“You are the seed of a new South Sudan, a seed for the fertile and lush growth of this country,” the pope said, addressing people who are living in refugee camps after being forced to leave their homes because of conflict or flooding.

The meeting with internally displaced persons (IDPs) took place at Freedom Hall in South Sudan’s capital of Juba, where Pope Francis is undertaking a pilgrimage of peace from Feb. 3-5.

Pope Francis met 2,500 internally displaced persons during his visit to Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Elias Turk/CNA
Pope Francis met 2,500 internally displaced persons during his visit to Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Elias Turk/CNA

“You, from all your different ethnic groups, you who have suffered and are still suffering, you who do not want to respond to evil with more evil. You, who choose fraternity and forgiveness, are even now cultivating a better tomorrow,” he encouraged those present.

“Be seeds of hope,” he said, “which make it possible for us already to glimpse the tree that one day, hopefully in the near future, will bear fruit.”

During the meeting, a video showed IDP camps in South Sudan and interviews with refugees who spoke about fleeing their homelands.

Pope Francis with Right Rev. Iain Greenshields (L) and Archbishop Justin Welby (R) during a meeting with refugees in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis with Right Rev. Iain Greenshields (L) and Archbishop Justin Welby (R) during a meeting with refugees in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

The encounter also included prayers led by the Moderator of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who joined Pope Francis for a final blessing on the participants.

Sara Beysolow Nyanti, a representative of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, gave a presentation on the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, which she called “worrying.”

“For over a decade, the South Sudanese people have experienced conflict, social and political instability, climate shocks, violence, displacement, food insecurity, lack of education opportunities, and access to health care systems,” she said.

Pope Francis greets Sara Beysolow Nyanti, a representative of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, during a gathering with 2,500 internally displaced persons in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets Sara Beysolow Nyanti, a representative of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, during a gathering with 2,500 internally displaced persons in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

South Sudan has the largest refugee crisis in Africa, with 2 million IDPs due to conflict, insecurity, and environmental challenges, the U.N. Refugee Agency reports.

There are also more than 2 million South Sudanese refugees living in neighboring countries.

Nyanti said in her presentation that an estimated 8 million people in South Sudan are expected to experience food insecurity in 2023.

Pope Francis meets a boy living in an IDP camp during a gathering in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis meets a boy living in an IDP camp during a gathering in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

Pope Francis also heard testimony from two 14- and 16-year-old boys and from a young girl, who are living in IDP camps.

The young people asked for peace in their country so that they and other children can have a positive future.

Nyakuor Rebecca speaks to Pope Francis during a gathering with refugees in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Nyakuor Rebecca speaks to Pope Francis during a gathering with refugees in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

“In the name of Jesus, I want to ask you to give a special blessing for all the children of South Sudan so we can grow together in peace and love,” Nyakuor Rebecca asked Francis. “Pope Francis, we love you. Thank you for loving South Sudan.”

At the end of his speech, Pope Francis responded to her request, and said he would give a special blessing so that the children of South Sudan “might grow up together in peace.”

Investigation into FBI, fed agencies’ targeting of Christians and pro-lifers to begin next week

An FBI agent stands outside the Houck residence in Kintnersville, Pennsylvania, on Sept. 23, 2022. Mark Houck was arrested that day and charged with assaulting a Planned Parenthood escort outside an Philadelphia abortion clinic on Oct. 13, 2021. / Courtesy of the Houck family

Washington D.C., Feb 4, 2023 / 10:00 am (CNA).

Congress will begin investigating what Republicans call the “weaponization” of the federal government against pro-life advocates and Christians next Thursday, according to announcements from leading House members.

After a House vote authorized the creation of the Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, Republicans have said they are committed to providing “oversight” and “accountability” to federal agencies that have been targeting parents, anti-abortion protesters, and Christians.

The investigation will operate under the House Judiciary Committee and be chaired by Ohio Republican Rep. Jim Jordan.

A primary focus of the investigation will be the Biden administration’s targeting of pro-lifers through the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, according to CNA communications with Russell Dye, Jordan’s communications director.

In 2022 the Biden Justice Department prosecuted a record 26 pro-life advocates under the FACE Act. Meanwhile, last year saw nearly 100 attacks against pregnancy resource centers and churches that went largely unpunished.

Perhaps the most controversial use of the FACE Act was the arrest of Catholic father and pro-life activist Mark Houck. The Pennsylvania resident was accused of pushing a Planned Parenthood volunteer in defense of his son about a year before his arrest. In September 2022 Houck was taken into custody by armed FBI agents while he was at home with his wife and children.

Houck was acquitted of all charges on Monday. Still, Republican leaders such as Rep. Chip Roy of Texas decried the FBI’s use of the FACE Act as a “brazen exercise in intimidation” that “never should have happened.”

“Every American should shudder at the power the federal government has used against parents for daring to stand up for their children, Christian organizations for following their faith, [and] pro-life Americans,” Roy told CNA after the subcommittee’s creation was announced.

As one of the 12 Republicans on the 21-member subcommittee, Roy told CNA that “this subcommittee will not be afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead and expose the weaponization of the federal government.”

Jordan also issued subpoenas Friday to the Justice Department, FBI, and Education Department related to a government task force that was set up to investigate parents who have spoken up at school board meetings.

According to the House Judiciary Committee, leaders within key federal agencies, including the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, have thus far ignored congressional inquiries.

Jordan said he will not hesitate to issue subpoenas to force answers out of federal agencies that have thus far been noncompliant.

Meanwhile, the subcommittee has been dismissed by nonvoting Democratic delegate Stacey Plaskett as the “committee on insurrection protection.”

Plaskett, who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands, was appointed ranking member to lead the nine Democrats on the subcommittee.

“They’re looking for conspiracies to create problems with no solutions,” Plaskett said in an MSNBC interview. “We’re looking to solutions.”

When advocating for the subcommittee’s creation in January, Jordan stated the purpose of the investigation is to uphold the First Amendment.

“The five rights we enjoy as Americans under the First Amendment, your right to practice your faith, your right to assemble, right to petition the government, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, every single one’s been attacked in the last two years. The government was telling people they couldn’t go to church just a few years ago,” Jordan said. “We want it all to stop. We want the double standard to stop.”

Priest, 5 students arrested for chants against president after Pope Francis event in DRC

Pope Francis interacted with an energetic crowd of 65,000 young adults and catechists at Martyrs' Stadium in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Feb. 2, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 4, 2023 / 09:00 am (CNA).

A Catholic priest and five students were arrested after an event Thursday morning with Pope Francis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, allegedly for criticizing the country’s president.

The students and Father Guy Julien Muluku, a Congolese member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, were detained nearly 34 hours before being released shortly before 10 p.m. on Feb. 3.

The arrest and subsequent release was confirmed to CNA by the Congregation of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

The six were arrested around 12 p.m. by the president’s intelligence service after Pope Francis’ gathering with Congolese youth at Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa, DRC, on Feb. 2.

When Pope Francis spoke against corruption during the Feb. 2 event, part of the crowd broke into a chant in the Lingala language directed at the country’s president and saying his mandate was over, according to the Associated Press.

DRC President Felix Tshisekedi, who took office in January 2019, will be up for reelection in December.

Father Jean Baptiste Malenge, a delegate for the Congolese bishops’ conference and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, told EWTN News that a group of students from the University De Mazenod in Kinshasa broke out in a song they learned from the late Congolese Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo: “corruption, we refuse corruption,” adding, “thief, beware.”

Father Muluku, who is academic secretary general at the graduate school, was arrested with five of these students when he tried to protect them during the arrest.

Note: The name of the students' school was corrected at 11:21 a.m. MST on Feb. 5, 2023.

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Francis urges divided South Sudan Christians to reject tribalism, embrace nonviolence

"Those who claim to be believers should have nothing more to do with a culture based on the spirit of vengeance," Pope Francis said at an ecumenical prayer service in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 4.

‘There is power in suffering’: Meet the bishop who ordained the real-life Father Stu

Mark Wahlberg starts as Father Stuart Long in "Father Stu: Reborn." / Credit: Sony Pictures

Denver Newsroom, Feb 4, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Is anyone beyond redemption? Last year’s sleeper hit film “Father Stu” showed that with the grace of God, anything is possible — even something as crazy as making a humble priest out of a rough-edged boxer.

The film, which was produced by and stars Mark Wahlberg as Father Stu, was well-received for its authentic portrayal of the priesthood and the Catholic Church, but it drew ire from some due to its strong language, which landed the film an R rating. Taking this criticism to heart, Wahlberg decided to re-cut the film as a PG-13 version for a wider audience in the form of “Father Stu: Reborn,” which hit theaters in December.

“Father Stu: Reborn” is based on the true story of Father Stuart Long, a priest of the Diocese of Helena, Montana, who died in 2014 at the age of 50 from a rare progressive muscular disorder. He was ordained a priest by Bishop George Leo Thomas in 2007 after God took the crooked lines of his life and drew a path for him to the priesthood.

Thomas now serves as the bishop of the Diocese of Las Vegas, but Long is someone he will carry in his memories for the rest of his life.

“My recollections are pretty consistent from his seminary time all the way through ordination,” Bishop Thomas told the Denver Catholic. “[He was] a very intelligent kid, very strong-willed, very humorous.

"I think his foul mouth got probably tamed out of him by the time I met him because I never did hear any kind of language. But I know that he had a life on the streets in Helena," Thomas said. "He was a boxer, to be sure. I have a very large family and some of my family’s friends taught him in high school. I was very close friends with one of his history professors, and they described him as argumentative and obstreperous.”

Father Stuart Long was a priest of the Diocese if Helena, whose unusual and redemptive path to the priesthood is retold in the film “Father Stu.”. Credit: Family of Father Stuart Long
Father Stuart Long was a priest of the Diocese if Helena, whose unusual and redemptive path to the priesthood is retold in the film “Father Stu.”. Credit: Family of Father Stuart Long

That history professor was Father Jeremiah Sullivan, whom Thomas credits with planting a seed in Long that would ultimately change the trajectory of his life.

“Father Jeremiah Sullivan was a history professor at Carroll College and also a Golden Gloves boxer related to Evel Knievel in his family lineage. He was the one who initially saw what he described as this untamed anger in his life,” Thomas recalled. “And he took him aside after class and he said, ‘You’ve got to get to the bottom of this. It’s taking your life in a direction you don’t want to go.’

“So he took him down to the boxing ring, he put gloves on him. And in addition to teaching him to box, I think he was responsible for uncovering the epicenter of his anger, which was the death of his little brother, who died at age 4. It was an unresolved anger both for Stu and for the family. I think that was almost like a trajectory that took him [in] a different direction in his life and actually turned that life around.”

Power in suffering

As the film shows, it took Long a while to find his grounding in life. He went from being a boxer in Helena to a struggling actor in Hollywood to eventually discerning a call to the priesthood. While in seminary, Long was diagnosed with a rare degenerative muscular disease that only worsened as he progressed through seminary. When it came time for his ordination, the seminary did not recommend that Long be ordained a priest.

“I received Stu’s evaluation from the seminary, and because his illness was so advanced at that stage of the game, they correctly advised against his ordination,” Thomas explained. “Priesthood is so physically demanding, mentally demanding, and he was already on crutches. He was very weak at that time. So they recommended against [holy] orders. And I was just so saddened to receive the recommendation. And for almost two full weeks, I would pray morning and night for guidance and the same theme in my prayer life kept coming back: that there is power in suffering, bring him forth.”

Through much prayer and discernment, Thomas ultimately decided that he would ordain Long a priest. He remembers that at the ordination, Long was too weak to lie prostrate on the floor before the laying on of hands, but he went through the ordination, nonetheless.

Bishop George Leo Thomas (center) celebrates the ordination Mass of Father Stuart Long (right front) at the Cathedral of St. Helena in 2007. Credit: Family of Father Stuart Long
Bishop George Leo Thomas (center) celebrates the ordination Mass of Father Stuart Long (right front) at the Cathedral of St. Helena in 2007. Credit: Family of Father Stuart Long

“At the end of the ordination, after Communion, he gave a very touching talk and he said to the people, ‘I stand before you as a broken man,’” Thomas recalled. “But he begged the people’s prayers and he promised he would do the very best he could do. They gave him only two years to live, and he lived just about six full years. He lived a marvelous priesthood in those six years as a spiritual director, as a confessor, as a celebrant at the Mass.”

One of the more memorable moments of Long’s priesthood came when Long’s father was received into the Church, which was toward the end of Thomas’ tenure in Helena. Thomas recalled how Long was too weak to be the one to receive his father into the Church, and though he was confined to a wheelchair, he was sure to attend the Easter Vigil to see his dad come into the very same Church he fell in love with.

“As the catechumens and candidates gathered at the baptismal font and as his dad was making his profession of faith, I looked over at Stu and you could see a tear coming down the side of his face,” Thomas recalled. “And I think that, in a way, he felt like his life was complete. Everything he wanted was there, most especially the conversion of his parents. And so he seemed to almost be released from his duties, shall we say, at that night at the Easter Vigil, as his dad recited the creed.”

‘Something beautiful for the Church’

As Long’s disease progressed, he became weaker and weaker — too weak to even lift the weight of the host at the consecration, Thomas said. He could only do so with help from the altar boys, who would take his hand while he held the host and lift his hand up during the elevation.

With stories like these, it’s no wonder Wahlberg took an interest in making a film about the life of Long. When Wahlberg, a Catholic himself, approached Thomas about the film, it became apparent that the only reason Wahlberg wanted to make the film was out of love for the Church.

“What struck me was that he told me what he had in mind and he said, ‘Bishop, the Church has been through so much, I want to do something beautiful for the Church,’” Thomas recalled. “And I said, ‘Well, you just sold the product. To me, That’s worth all the time and effort you can put into it.’ I told him I’d be happy to be in the wings, to be able to advise him about some of the factual questions. I just felt like he’s a very sincere man. He loves the Church.”

Mark Wahlberg approached Bishop George Leo Thomas for his blessing and advisement in the making of “Father Stu.”.
Mark Wahlberg approached Bishop George Leo Thomas for his blessing and advisement in the making of “Father Stu.”.

Upon viewing the first cut of the film, Bishop Thomas said Wahlberg “knocked it out of the park”; his only criticism was the amount of crude language the film contained. He expressed his concerns to Wahlberg, and although the initial release kept the language, Wahlberg eventually heeded the bishop’s words, which prompted the rerelease of the film as “Father Stu: Reborn.

“He called me [one day] and he said, ‘You remember what you said about the movie and the language?’ He said, ‘Well, I have decided to take your words to heart, and we’re going to do a sanitized version coming out in December without the language in it,” Thomas said.

It’s not often that a bishop has the chance to work so closely with a big-time Hollywood actor to tell a story like Long’s, and Thomas was happy to support Wahlberg’s vision for the film along the way.

“If it brings one person back to the Church or it inspires one vocation to priesthood or religious life, it’s worth everything that he put into it and all of our support for him,” he said.

With renewed enthusiasm for the film’s rerelease, Thomas has also authored a study guide for the movie that’s meant to be used in the parish setting, such as for confirmation classes or in high school or middle school groups. The guide was published by Twenty-Third Publications and contains a series of questions based on the themes of the movie. It can be found here.

This article was first published by Denver Catholic on Jan. 20, 2023, and is reprinted at Catholic News Agency with permission.

Pope Francis holds moment of silence for slain priests and religious in South Sudan

Pope Francis met with bishops, priests, and religious in St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 4, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Pope Francis held a moment of silence Saturday for priests and religious who have been killed in South Sudan.

“Let us think in silence of these brothers and sisters who have lost their lives in this pastoral ministry,” he said in St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba on Feb. 4.

The pope met with the bishops, priests, and religious of South Sudan on the second day of his historic trip to the war-torn country.

Pope Francis enters St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan for a meeting with bishops, priests, and religious on Feb. 4, 2023. Elias Turk/CNA
Pope Francis enters St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan for a meeting with bishops, priests, and religious on Feb. 4, 2023. Elias Turk/CNA

Approximately 1,000 people were present in the cathedral for the meeting, and another 5,000 were outside the cathedral, according to local authorities.

During the encounter, Francis heard testimony about the lives and ministries of Sister Mary Daniel Abud and Sister Regina Roba, who were killed in a violent attack in South Sudan in 2021.

Many priests and religious, he said, “have been victims of violence and attacks in which they lost their lives. In a very real way, they offered their lives for the sake of the Gospel.”

“Their closeness to their brothers and sisters is a marvelous testimony that they bequeath to us, a legacy that invites us to carry forward their mission,” he said.

Pope Francis met with bishops, priests, and religious in St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis met with bishops, priests, and religious in St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan, on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

Pope Francis also highlighted the example of St. Daniele Comboni, a missionary and the first Catholic bishop of central Africa, who died in Sudan in 1881.

With his missionary brothers, Comboni “carried out a great work of evangelization in this land,” the pope said. “He used to say that a missionary must be ready to do anything for the sake of Christ and the Gospel. We need courageous and generous souls ready to suffer and die for Africa.”

According to the Vatican, there are 7 million Catholics, 300 priests, and 253 religious brothers and sisters in South Sudan. The ratio of Catholics to priests is more than 24,000 Catholics for every one priest.

In his speech, Francis encouraged the priests, seminarians, and religious brothers and sisters of South Sudan to intercede for their people.

He quoted from a 1991 speech by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini to explain that interceding “does not mean simply ‘praying for someone,’ as we so often think. Etymologically it means ‘to step into the middle,’ to be willing to walk into the middle of a situation.”

Pope Francis greets Bishop Christian Carlassare and youth of the Diocese of Rumbek outside St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets Bishop Christian Carlassare and youth of the Diocese of Rumbek outside St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

“To intercede is thus to come down and place ourselves in the midst of our people, to act as a bridge that connects them to God,” Francis added.

Pope Francis said stepping into the midst of God’s people is something the Church’s pastors need to cultivate.

We need to have “the ability to step into the middle of their sufferings and tears, into the middle of their hunger for God and their thirst for love,” he said. “Our first duty is not to be a Church that is perfectly organized, but a Church that, in the name of Christ, stands in the midst of people’s troubled lives, a Church that is willing to dirty its hands for people.”

He thanked those present for their dedication to the Church, and for their courage, sacrifices, and patience.

“I pray that you will always be generous pastors and witnesses, armed only with prayer and love; that you allow yourselves, in meekness, to be constantly surprised by God’s grace; and that you may become a means of salvation for others, prophets of closeness who accompany the people, intercessors with uplifted arms,” he said.

People outside St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan for Pope Francis' meeting with bishops, priests, and religious on Feb. 4, 2023. Gianluca Teseo/CNA
People outside St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan for Pope Francis' meeting with bishops, priests, and religious on Feb. 4, 2023. Gianluca Teseo/CNA

On Feb. 4, Pope Francis will also meet South Sudanese refugees, people who have been internally displaced due to the war, before leading an ecumenical prayer service.

On his final day on Feb. 5, the pope will celebrate Sunday Mass in English at the John Garang Mausoleum. He will then lead the Angelus, a traditional Marian prayer, before flying back to Rome.

Pope Francis arrived in South Sudan after almost four days in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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