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Pope Francis mourns Catholic priests killed in Mexico

null / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Jun 22, 2022 / 06:35 am (CNA).

Pope Francis said Wednesday he is mourning the death of two Jesuit priests who were killed in Mexico this week.

“I also express my sorrow and dismay at the killing in Mexico the day before yesterday of two Jesuit religious, my brothers, and a layman,” the pope said on June 22 in St. Peter’s Square.

“How many killings in Mexico,” he said before thousands of pilgrims. “I am close with affection and prayer to the Catholic community affected by this tragedy. Once again, I repeat that violence does not solve problems, but increases unnecessary suffering.”

The Jesuits of Mexico announced Tuesday that two of their priests were killed on June 20 inside a church in a mountainous region of Chihuahua state.

Fathers Javier Campos Morales and Joaquín César Mora Salazar had served as Jesuit priests for nearly a century combined. The gunmen who carried out the June 20 attack on the church in Cerocahui, Chihuahua also took their bodies.

According to the Chihuahua State Attorney General’s Office, both priests tried to protect a person who sought refuge in the church while being chased by at least one other man, both armed, El Sol de Mexico newspaper reported. The chaser reportedly shot and killed all three men.

Luis Gerardo Moro Madrid SJ, Provincial of the Jesuits of Mexico, condemned the killings and said they are “working with the federal and state authorities to ensure the safety” of the parish’s two remaining priests.

Pope Francis expressed his sorrow at the death of the priests in an appeal at the end of his Wednesday general audience.

He also said he is praying for victims of a powerful earthquake in Afghanistan, which struck just after 1:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday.

At least 920 people have been killed, and hundreds injured, according to Taliban officials, the BBC reported.

“In the past few hours, an earthquake has claimed lives and caused extensive damage in Afghanistan,” Pope Francis said.

“I express my sympathy to the injured and those affected by the earthquake and pray especially for those who lost their lives and their families,” he said. “I hope that with everyone’s help, the suffering of the dear people of Afghanistan can be alleviated.”

Pope Francis: Do not sugarcoat your witness of the Gospel

Pope Francis speaks at the general audience on June 22, 2022. / Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Vatican City, Jun 22, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Do not sugarcoat your witness of the Gospel, but let the truth be made manifest even through your weakness, Pope Francis said in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday.

“We can ask ourselves: are we capable of preserving the tenor of this relationship of Jesus with the disciples, according to that style of his that is so open, so frank, so direct, so humanly real?” the pope said on June 22. “How is our relationship with Jesus? Is it like that, like him with his disciples?”

“Are we not, instead, very often tempted to enclose the testimony of the Gospel in the cocoon of a ‘sugary’ revelation, to which is added our own circumstantial veneration?” he continued. “This attitude, which seems like respect, actually distances us from the real Jesus, and even becomes the occasion for a very abstract, very self-referential, very worldly walk of faith.”

Pope Francis said Jesus is present to us even in our old age and infirmity, as our dependency on others grows.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims at the general audience on June 22, 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
Pope Francis greets pilgrims at the general audience on June 22, 2022. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

“Jesus is the Word of God made man, and he acts as man, he speaks to us as man, God-man. With this tenderness, with this friendship, with this closeness. Jesus is not like that sugary image in those little pictures, no: Jesus is at our side, he is close to us,” he said.

Continuing a series of lessons on old age, Francis reflected during the general audience on Jesus’ “moving dialogue” with Peter at the end of the Gospel of John.

The conversation, in which Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, reflects “a relationship in truth,” he said.

He recalled Jesus’ words to St. Peter, that “when you were younger, you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

Pope Francis greets children from Ukraine who are studying at a school in Rome. Daniel Ibanez/CNA
Pope Francis greets children from Ukraine who are studying at a school in Rome. Daniel Ibanez/CNA

The pope encouraged the elderly to embrace their weaknesses and their ill health, rather than fight against it.

“Tell me about having to go in a wheelchair, eh,” he said. Pope Francis has been using a cane and wheelchair in recent weeks due to an inflamed ligament in his knee.

“But that’s how it is, that’s how life is: with old age you get all these diseases and we have to accept them as they come, don’t we,” he remarked.

“We don’t have the strength of the young,” the pope continued. “And your witness, too, Jesus says, will go along with this weakness. You are to give witness to Jesus even in weakness, in sickness and death.”

Pope Francis recalled a quote from St. Ignatius of Loyola, who said, “Just as in life, even in death we must bear witness as disciples of Jesus.”

Even at the end of life we must continue to be disciples of Christ, he urged, noting that St. John the Evangelist, in the Gospel, explains that Jesus is alluding to the witness of martyrdom.

“But we can well understand more generally the meaning of this admonition: your pursuit [of Jesus] will have to learn to be taught and shaped by your frailty, your helplessness, your dependence on others, even in dressing, in walking,” he said.

Jesus, the pope said, continues to say, “you, ‘follow me.’”

Catholics should reflect, he said, on how to “remain faithful to the lived pursuit, to the promised love, to the justice sought in the time of our capacity for initiative, in the time of fragility, in the time of dependence, of leave-taking…”

“Following Jesus is important: always follow Jesus, on foot, running, slowly, in a wheelchair, but always follow him,” he urged.

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Museum of the Bible exhibit explores architectural history of St. Peter's Basilica

An exhibit at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., focuses on the history of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. / Courtesy of Museum of the Bible

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2022 / 18:41 pm (CNA).

Known for its grandeur, St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City has long been an architectural inspiration worldwide. Now the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is honoring the history of the structure’s architecture with a new exhibit.

Basilica Sancti Petri: The Transformation of Saint Peter’s Basilica” opened May 27 and will remain in the museum's long-term Vatican exhibit, Treasures from the Vatican Museums and the Vatican Library, through Sept. 25.

The exhibit features numerous original prints of design ideas put forward by infamous artists of the 16th century such as Antonio da Sangallo, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Carlo Fontana, Agostino Veneziano, and Antoine Lafréry.

“We have that historical perspective, but also these unique and beautiful prints at the same time,” Jeff Kloha, chief curator of the Museum of the Bible, told CNA. “So it's a combination of a historical exhibit and an art exhibit. You get to see what [the artists] started on, an idea, and how it changed.”

St. Peter’s Basilica is designed with a combination of primarily Roman and Latin influences. Its current state depicts bits and pieces from each artist’s prints.

“Basilica Sancti Petri,” the 2014 book by Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums, inspired the Museum of the Bible exhibit. Kloha told CNA that Jatta’s collection of the prints for the book led her to offer the original copies for display in the exhibit.

St. Peter’s Basilica was originally built by Roman Emperor Constantine during the pontificate of Pope Sylvester I (314–345) and was completed in 337. It was eventually demolished and rebuilt in the 16th century. The basilica has been the primary church of the Vatican and the site of papal celebrations for centuries. Its architecture has been a blueprint for numerous churches and secular buildings, and it is the first Christian church to be built on the burial site of a martyr — its namesake, St. Peter.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says to Simon Peter, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

“It's an interesting way that the Bible becomes kind of concrete in that sense,” Kloha told CNA, while also noting that “in many ways it becomes a model, a pattern for what follows,” both in Catholicism and other traditions.

Basilica Sancti Petri: The Transformation of Saint Peter’s Basilica” will be included as a part of general admission tickets to the Museum of the Bible through Sept. 25. To learn more about this exhibit and others, visit the museum’s website.

Young people 'key' to building understanding, Israeli ambassador to Poland says

Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne speaks with students and faculty at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, on June 21, 2022. / Credit: John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

Lublin, Poland, Jun 21, 2022 / 17:07 pm (CNA).

Dialogue between young people from Israel and Poland is key to building understanding between the nations, Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne told students and faculty at the John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, on June 21.

“Meetings of young Poles and Israelis constitute an investment in our common future,” the ambassador said. “The future of our mutual relations is in their hands.”

The ambassador’s remarks came at the announcement by Father Mirosław Kalinowski, the university’s rector, of the creation of The Abraham Joshua Heschel Center at the university. The center, which will carry out joint educational and cultural projects addressed to Jewish and Polish youth, “seeks to build bridges and develop Polish-Israeli research and cultural cooperation,” Kalinowski said. Kalinowski added that he is looking forward to the center’s cooperation with the Israeli embassy and academic centers in Israel.

“A thousand years of living together on Polish soil is the cornerstone of our present and future cooperation,” Livne said. “We should work together to solve the problems that Poland, Israel, and all of Europe are currently facing. Challenges open up new opportunities. Responding to these challenges is our task.”

“A lack of respect between parties who do not understand each other is the root of many conflicts,” the ambassador continued. “My people have experienced this very strongly. Our main task is to build bridges — bridges of mutual understanding, bridges of communication. This is the answer to the challenges we are going to face in the future.”

Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne and Father Mirosław Kalinowski, rector of John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, discuss building bridges between the two countries at the university on June 21, 2022. Credit: John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin
Israeli Ambassador to Poland Yacov Livne and Father Mirosław Kalinowski, rector of John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin, Poland, discuss building bridges between the two countries at the university on June 21, 2022. Credit: John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin

“It is much easier to distort history when we do not know our own past and that of our neighbors,” Livne said. “It is therefore our responsibility to conduct thorough research and to learn from history based on facts.”

The ambassador’s visit is considered a stepping stone to ongoing cooperation between the countries. Kalinowski and Livne also met on May 13 at the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw. 

Livne has served as the Israeli Ambassador to Poland since the end of February.

US bishops file brief supporting web designer who objects to gay marriage

Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative. / Alliance Defending Freedom.

Washington D.C., Jun 21, 2022 / 15:51 pm (CNA).

The U.S. bishops are coming to the aid of a Colorado web designer, a Christian who fears prosecution under state anti-discrimination law for stating her faith-based objections to providing services that promote same-sex marriage.

Along with five other faith groups, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) filed an amici curiae brief in support of the web designer, Lorie Smith, in her Supreme Court case 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis.

“Free speech plays a critical role in protecting religious exercise because ‘freedom of conscience and worship’ have ‘close parallels in the speech provisions of the First Amendment,’” the June 2 amici brief reads.

Supreme Court justices will hear the case next term, considering “Whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Smith, the owner of the graphic arts and website designing business 303 Creative, is being represented in the case by Alliance Defending Freedom

Her work is animated by her deeply-rooted faith, she says.

“As a Christian who believes that God gave me the creative gifts that are expressed through this business, I have always strived to honor Him in how I operate it,” her website description states.

The Colorado-based web designer fears prosecution under Colorado’s Anti-Discrimination Act, which includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

Smith's attorneys say that the law would force her to live under threat of prosecution if she declines to design and publish websites that promote messages or causes that conflict with her beliefs, such as messages that promote same-sex marriage or same-sex weddings. Because of the law, Smith has not sought to expand her business to include designing websites for weddings.

Her case is not a response to government action. Rather, it is a pre-enforcement challenge intended to prevent the use of the law that Smith's attorneys say affects creative professionals who have religious or moral concerns about creating content that violates their beliefs.

Smith’s case is similar to 2018’s Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, in which a bakery rejected making a cake for a same-sex wedding because of its owner’s religious beliefs. The Colorado Civil Rights Commission argued that this was an instance of unjust discrimination, but the Supreme Court ruled the commission “showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating” the owner’s objection.

The Masterpiece case is the basis for many arguments in Smith’s brief, as well as amici briefs in her favor.

Alongside the USCCB, the June 2 amici brief was filed by the Colorado Catholic Conference, The General Council of the Assemblies of God, The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and Samaritan’s Purse.

The brief states, “Values of particular importance to the USCCB include the protection of the rights of religious organizations and religious believers under the First Amendment, and the proper development of this Court’s jurisprudence in that regard.”

The amici brief also states, “More broadly, our culture and our politics have become increasingly polarized, leading to regulations and policies that would force minority voices to choose between violating their conscience or being pushed from the public square."

Smith, as stated in her petitioner’s brief, does not discriminate against clients on the basis of race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation. She instead cares about the message she is asked to create.

Her brief says, “Smith will decline any request—no matter who makes it—to create content that contradicts the truths of the Bible, demeans or disparages someone, promotes atheism or gambling, endorses the taking of unborn life, incites violence, or promotes a concept of marriage that is not solely the union of one man and one woman.”

The USCCB’s involvement in the case aligns with its mission statement, which calls the bishops to “act collaboratively and consistently on vital issues confronting the Church and society.”

Nigerian Catholic parish hard hit in latest raid

Map of Nigeria. / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jun 21, 2022 / 14:40 pm (CNA).

An early morning raid Sunday by terrorists in north-central Nigeria hit a Roman Catholic congregation hard.

“We lost three of our parishioners, and 36 people were kidnapped, the majority of whom were Catholics,” Father Francis Agba, pastor of St. Moses Church in Rubu, told CNA via text message. 

“This is the third attack against this village in this month alone and the latest of 15 attacks in the 17 outstations of the parish this year,” he added. Agba is the head of St. Augustine’s Parish which has 17 churches, one of which is St. Moses.

The three churches were in a complex of villages called Rubu in Kajuru County, approximately 30 miles south of Kaduna City in north-central Nigeria. Other churches attacked included Maranatha Baptist and Evangelical Church Winning All. 

The abductees included 31 females and five males, according to Jonathan Asake, the head of Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU), an umbrella group for all Christian communities in the State.

Father Francis Agba, pastor of St. Moses Church in Rubu, Nigeria. Courtesy of Father Francis Agba
Father Francis Agba, pastor of St. Moses Church in Rubu, Nigeria. Courtesy of Father Francis Agba

Worshippers told reporters that they had decided to attend the 7 a.m. service in hopes of lessening the chance of becoming victims of terrorists who have struck the village many times in recent years. 

The terrorists thwarted those plans. When the shooting started the congregants ran toward the forest but three lost their lives, said Agba, the St. Moses pastor. 

Another attack the next day

The village of Gwando, 10 miles east of Rubu, was swarmed by terrorists Monday, according to Stingo Usman, a community leader in Maraban Kajuru. “No one was killed because the villagers ran into the forest, but their animals were rustled,” Usman said.

Nigerian security forces attempted to respond to the attack in Rubu an hour after it began but changed plans after hearing that the bandits had left the town with their hostages, Usman said. “The military then decided to meet the bandits at Kutura Station, but abandoned that effort due to bad roads,” Usman said. Kaduna Police spokesman Mohammad Jaliga Kumo did not respond to CNA’s request for comment.

The attacks are part of a systematic campaign by Fulani bandit gangs to force the majority-Christian farmers off of the land in southern Kaduna, Asake said. The Sunday morning raids came nine days after a June 5 bandit assault on three villages approximately 12 miles away that left 32 dead and 12 wounded, Asake said. The villagers attacked in that raid on June 5 reported that a helicopter hovered over the village and fired rounds that killed or wounded residents of the village instead of the terrorists. The Kaduna State Commissioner for Public Security disputed the claim, but the villagers have held firm in their version of events.

In that earlier raid 27 villagers, chiefly women, were abducted. The bandits have since contacted relatives using the abductees’ cell phones and demanded a ransom of the equivalent of $1,300 per person, Asake said.

“We told the bandits that most of the captured women are widows whose husbands were killed in previous attacks,” Asake said.

“Their answer was that the women could be returned in lieu of a promise that our villagers will not go to their farms carrying any weapons,” he said. “They cannot carry even a machete, making them utterly defenseless during the next attack.”

“The International Committee on Nigeria believes the Fulani militants have an attack strategy to instill fear, cause displacement, and allow occupation of Christian farms,” Kyle Abts, executive director of the International Committee on Nigeria (ICON), told CNA. The goal is to disrupt these farmers from generating a harvest and a wage. After leaving the area, these lands will be re-occupied by Fulani herders and their families,” Abts said.

The spate of attacks targeting Christian churches has been attributed to “communal violence” by analysts with the Council on Foreign Relations and the result of “clashes over land and water resources” in reports by the U.S. Department of State. 

Human rights scholars who spoke to CNA sharply disagree with those characterizations. They say the massacres in Kajuru are part of a long-term campaign by radicalized Muslims to Islamicize the whole of Nigeria.

The widespread killings by terrorist gangs along with the Islamist insurgencies of Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa have taken more than 350,000 lives since 2001, said Abts, of ICON. 

“The overall aim of the terrorists is economical and partly religious,” Father Agba said. “Partly religious, because many Muslims have fallen victim, too, but the frequency of the attacks is much more on the predominantly Christian parts of the state.” 

The gangs that have terrorized the state of Kaduna with mass kidnappings of college students and groups of motorists on the highways have grown wealthy and powerful since they emerged in the northwestern state of Zamfara in 2011, according to bandit expert Dr. Murtala Rufa’i, a historian at the Usmanu Dan Fodiyo University in Sokoto. Scholars estimate that between 10,000 and 30,000 bandit terrorists are operating in five of Nigeria’s northwestern states. 

Two Jesuit priests killed in a church in Mexico

Fathers Javier Campos Morales, SJ and Joaquín César Mora Salazar, SJ. / Mexican Jesuits

Denver Newsroom, Jun 21, 2022 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

The Jesuits of Mexico announced Tuesday that two of their priests were killed Monday inside a church in a mountainous region of Chihuahua state. 

Fathers Javier Campos Morales and Joaquín César Mora Salazar had served as Jesuit priests for nearly a century combined. The gunmen who carried out the June 20 attack on the church in Cerocahui, Chihuahua also took their bodies. 

“We condemn these violent acts, we demand justice and the recovery of the bodies of our brothers who were taken from the church by armed persons,” a June 21 statement released in Spanish from the Mexican Jesuits reads. 

“We trust that the testimonies of Christian life of our dear Javier and Joaquín continue to inspire men and women to give themselves in the service of the most vulnerable. Rest in peace.”

According to the Chihuahua State Attorney General's Office, both priests tried to protect a person who sought refuge in the church while being chased by at least one other man, both armed, El Sol de Mexico newspaper reported. The chaser reportedly shot and killed all three men. 

Luis Gerardo Moro Madrid SJ, Provincial of the Jesuits of Mexico, condemned the killings and said they are “working with the federal and state authorities to ensure the safety” of the parish’s two remaining priests.

The Jesuits issued a demand that “all protective measures be adopted immediately to safeguard the lives of our Jesuit brothers, sisters, lay people and the entire Cerocahui community.”

When asked about the crime by El Sol de Mexico, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador indicated that an investigation is underway. 

The region where the killings took place is populated by the Tarahumara indigenous people, who are renowned for their running skills. The area has suffered from drug-related organized crime for years, and the Jesuits noted and expressed solidarity with the pain that the people they serve are experiencing “due to the prevailing violence.”

“The Sierra Tarahumara, like many other regions of the country, faces conditions of violence and neglect that have not been reversed,” the statement from the Jesuits continues. 

“Every day men and women are arbitrarily deprived of life, as our brothers were murdered today. The Jesuits of Mexico will not remain silent in the face of the reality that lacerates all of society. We will continue to be present and working for the mission of justice, reconciliation and peace, through our pastoral, educational and social works.”

According to the Jesuits, Father Campos Morales was born in Mexico City and was ordained in 1972. After several pastoral assignments, he returned to Cerocahui in 2019 to serve as Superior of the Jesuit Mission; as Pastor and Vicar of Indigenous Pastoral of the Diocese of Tarahumara, and as Regional Advisor of Base Ecclesial Communities. 

Father Salazar was born in Monterrey and was ordained in 1971. Since 2000 he served as Parochial Vicar in Chínipas, and later as Cooperating Vicar in Cerocahui since 2007. 

The killing of priests in Mexico has escalated in recent years. Most recently, the body of Father José Guadalupe Rivas Saldaña, 57, was found with signs of violence on the outskirts of Tecate, a city located on the border with the United States in the Mexican state of Baja California.

It is estimated that the first three and a half years of the current administration of López Obrador has been the most violent period on record in the history of Mexico, with more than 120,000 homicides.