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Pope Francis on World Day for Consecrated Life: Religious have ‘special role’ in the Church

Pope Francis greets the crowd at his Sunday Angelus address on Jan. 29, 2023. / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 2, 2023 / 12:23 pm (CNA).

On the 27th World Day for Consecrated Life, Pope Francis recalled the special role religious brothers and sisters have in the Catholic Church.

“In the People of God, sent to bring the Gospel to all people, you consecrated men and women have a special role,” the pope said in a written message for Feb. 2.

This special role, he continued, stems “from the special gift you have received: a gift that gives your witness a special character and value, by the very fact that you are wholly dedicated to God and his kingdom, in poverty, virginity, and obedience.”

Pope Francis’ message was read at the beginning of a Mass for consecrated men and women in Rome’s St. Mary Major Basilica on Feb. 2.

Pope Francis usually celebrates a special Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica to mark the World Day for Consecrated Life but was unable to do so this year because the day fell in the middle of his Jan. 31–Feb. 5 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

The Feb. 2 Mass in St. Mary Major was celebrated by the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Consecrated Life, Cardinal João Braz de Aviz, who read the pope’s message to those present.

“When you hear this message from me, I will be on mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I know that I will be accompanied by your prayers,” the pope said. “In turn, I want to assure you of mine for the mission of each of you and your communities.”

“All of us together are members of the Church,” he continued, “and the Church is in mission from the first day, sent by the Risen Lord, and will be so until the last, by the power of his Spirit.”

The theme of the 2023 World Day for Consecrated Life is “Brothers and Sisters in Mission.”

The Catholic Church celebrates the World Day for Consecrated Life every year on Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas or the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The day of prayer was established by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

In his message, Pope Francis said the mission of consecrated men and women is enriched by the unique charisms of their communities, in addition to the fundamental gift they have each received.

“In their stupendous variety, [charisms] are all given for the edification of the Church and for its mission,” he said. “All charisms are for mission, and they are precisely so with the incalculable richness of their variety; so that the Church can witness and proclaim the Gospel to all and in every situation.”

He prayed that the Virgin Mary would obtain for consecrated men and women the grace to bring the light of Christ’s love to all people. He also entrusted them to Mary “Salus Populi Romani,” the title of a Byzantine Marian icon housed in the Basilica of St. Mary Major.

In his homily at the Mass, Archbishop Carballo, who is a religious in the Franciscan Order of Friars Minor, said “we want, especially on this day, to say our thanks to the Lord and, using the words of Mary, the consecrated woman par excellence, sing our Magnificat to him who is the Good, the All Good, the Supreme Good.”

God, he said, “has made us sharers in a beautiful inheritance and a mission no less beautiful: that of representing in us the historical form of the obedient, poor, and chaste Jesus.”

“Let a song of thanksgiving rise from our lips and from our hearts, today and always, because Jesus has bent over our littleness and has given us the grace to follow him in the various forms of consecrated life, despite our littleness,” he said.

Religious freedom ‘under assault’ across the world, leaders testify at summit

Former assistant secretary of state Robert Destro discusses the need for religious freedom. Pictured from left, Imam Talib Shareef of the Nation’s Mosque; Destro; and Cole Durham of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at Brigham Young University Law School. Peter Pinedo/CNA / Peter Pinedo/CNA

Washington D.C., Feb 2, 2023 / 10:50 am (CNA).

“Tragically, religious freedom for many is increasingly under assault around the world,” Rep. Michael McCaul said to kick off the International Religious Freedom (IRF) Summit, which took place in Washington, D.C., this week. 

Faith leaders from across the world — including Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others — gathered at the summit to address the ongoing persecution against people of faith, which has been increasing in many nations and has resulted in the deaths of millions.

McCaul, a Republican congressman from Texas and a Catholic, invoked the teachings of both Pope Francis and St. John Paul II in upholding religious freedom as the “cornerstone” of human rights. 

Some leaders at the summit, including Naomi Kikoler of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, cautioned that the persecution of people of faith in some countries already amounts to genocide and could lead to genocide in others if immediate action is not taken.

“We know from studying the Holocaust that genocide and related crimes against humanity, persecution, is never spontaneous,” Kikoler said. “There’s a wide range of early warning signs, and if detected and their causes are addressed, it could be possible to prevent catastrophic loss of life.” 

Where is persecution occurring? 

“The right to practice one’s religion of choice is so frequently violated by governments all over the world,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Catholic Democrat from Massachusetts, while speaking at the summit. “The Uyghurs and Tibetans by China, Muslims and Sikhs in India, Coptic Christians in Egypt … Shia Muslims in Sunni-governed countries, Catholics in Nicaragua, Jews in France, I could go on and on and on, the list is way too long.” 

“As a practicing Catholic myself I know how important and personal the right to freedom of religion is,” McGovern added.

The history of Catholics in America is itself marked by the fight for religious freedom, said Robert Destro, a senior fellow with the Religious Freedom Institute. A former assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Destro is now a professor of law at the Catholic University of America.

“People forget, American Catholics were among our own nation’s leaders in fighting for religious freedom,” Destro told CNA.

Destro pointed out that even Catholics in the U.S. have had to contend with religious persecution in the past.

One example: the anti-Catholic riots in Philadelphia in the 1840s. “They blew open the wall of the church with a cannon and they set it on fire,” Destro said. “Thank God we’re not seeing that today [in America], but we are seeing attacks on churches. So, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” 

“If you are open about your faith,” Destro said, very often “they kill you.” 

Though Catholics in America don’t face widespread violent persecution, Catholics are being killed, persecuted, and arrested by the thousands in other countries such as Nicaragua, China, and Nigeria.

According to religious freedom watchdog Open Doors International, 5,014 Christians were killed in 2022 in Nigeria alone. 

Just earlier this month a Nigerian Catholic priest, Father Isaac Achi, was burned to death in his rectory by armed bandits. 

“Ours is a huge task, freedom for the soul and respect for each other,” said Ambassador Sam Brownback at the summit. “We are gathered and fighting here for the abused and beaten, even killed religious minorities that even now are huddled in secret places yearning with all their heart to worship God as they believe they should. And is that too much to ask? It is not.”

Pope Francis to priests in Congo: Bring people Jesus, who ‘heals the wounds of every heart’

Speaking in Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa on Feb. 2, 2023, the pope encouraged priests and religious to continue to bring the Congolese people Jesus, who “heals the wounds of every human heart.” / Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Feb 2, 2023 / 10:30 am (CNA).

On the World Day of Consecrated Life, Pope Francis thanked the more than 18,000 priests and religious in the Democratic Republic of Congo for serving others amid the country’s “difficult and often dangerous conditions.”

Speaking in Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa on Feb. 2, the pope encouraged priests and religious to continue to bring the Congolese people Jesus, who “heals the wounds of every human heart.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo is home to more than 52 million Catholics, including more than 6,000 priests, 4,000 seminarians, and 10,000 religious sisters, according to the latest Vatican statistics.

On his third day in the central African country, Pope Francis spent the afternoon praying with representatives of the Congo’s vibrant Church community in the Kinshasa Cathedral.

“Dear brothers and sisters, as I look at you, I give thanks to God, because you are signs of the presence of Jesus, who walks in the streets of this country, who touches people’s lives and binds their wounds,” the pope said.

“I thank you from my heart for who you are and what you do, for your witness to the Church and to the world. Do not be discouraged, because we need you! You are precious and important. I say this in the name of the whole Church,” he said.

Speaking in Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa on Feb. 2, 2023, Pope Francis encouraged priests and religious to continue to bring the Congolese people Jesus, who “heals the wounds of every human heart.” Credit: Elias Turk/EWTN
Speaking in Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa on Feb. 2, 2023, Pope Francis encouraged priests and religious to continue to bring the Congolese people Jesus, who “heals the wounds of every human heart.” Credit: Elias Turk/EWTN

Francis underlined that a vocation in the Church is different from a profession or social position: “Rather, it is a mission to act as signs of Christ’s presence, his unconditional love, his reconciliation and forgiveness, and his compassionate concern for the needs of the poor.”

“Dear priests and deacons, consecrated men and women, seminarians: through you, the Lord also  wants to anoint his people today with the balm of consolation and hope.”

The pope was welcomed to the Kinshasa Cathedral with great enthusiasm. People lined the streets surrounding the cathedral to greet the pope as he passed by. The congregation inside the cathedral prayed decades of the rosary in Lingala, Kikongo, Swahili, Tshiluba, and French.

Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, the archbishop of Kinshasa, met the pope, who arrived in a wheelchair. Together the two made their way to a side chapel where the pope paused to pray before the graves of past Congolese bishops.

Pope Francis arrives at Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Feb. 2, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis arrives at Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Feb. 2, 2023. Vatican Media

The cardinal told the pope that living priestly and religious vocations in the Congo today “involves enormous challenges.”

“However, I remain convinced that unfailing attachment to the Lord, fidelity to Gospel values, and the joy of serving and accompanying the people of God in their quest for greater dignity are the guarantees of an authentic and true priestly and religious life that is joyful and fulfilling,” Besungu said.

“For this I bless the Lord for the flourishing of priestly and religious vocations in our country.”

In the cathedral, the pope listened to testimonies from a diocesan priest, a religious sister, and a seminarian.

Sister Alice Sala asked Pope Francis to help tell the world about what is happening in the DRC, where more than 120 armed groups are fighting for control of the country’s eastern region, an area rich with natural resources.

Violence in eastern DRC has created a severe humanitarian crisis with more than 5.5 million people displaced from their homes, the third-highest number of internally displaced people in the world.

“Since Congo is a land of martyrs, murders, and wars entertained and financed from outside, we ask Your Holiness to be our spokesperson in the world so that the good of the people may take precedence over interest in our natural resources,” Sala said.

“Most Blessed Father, despite this picture of multiple injustices, the Congo remains a land blessed by God, a generous, prayer-loving people, filled with vitality and hope, as Your Holiness has surely observed. That is why we are not discouraged, because we believe in the risen Christ.”

About 1,200 people were present inside of the cathedral, according to local authorities, with thousands more gathered outside.

Pope Francis encouraged priests and religious to continue to bring the Congolese people Jesus, who “heals the wounds of every human heart” at Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa on Feb. 2, 2023. Credit: Elias Turk/EWTN
Pope Francis encouraged priests and religious to continue to bring the Congolese people Jesus, who “heals the wounds of every human heart” at Our Lady of Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa on Feb. 2, 2023. Credit: Elias Turk/EWTN

The Catholic Church celebrates the World Day for Consecrated Life each year on Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, also known as Candlemas. Established by St. John Paul II, the day recognizes the beauty and impact of a life dedicated to poverty, chastity, and obedience.

In the pope’s speech to the priests, seminarians, and consecrated men and women, he offered advice for how to overcome spiritual mediocrity and a worldly mentality.

“Never forget that the secret of everything is prayer … since the ministry and the apostolate are not primarily our own work and do not depend solely on human means,” Pope Francis said.

“First of all, let us remain faithful to certain liturgical rhythms of prayer that mark the day, from the Mass to the breviary. The daily celebration of the Eucharist is the beating heart of priestly and religious life. The Liturgy of the Hours allows us to pray with the Church and with regularity: May we never neglect it! Then, too, let us not neglect confession. We always need to be forgiven, so as then to bestow mercy upon others.”

Pope Francis added that it is important to “set aside a time of intense prayer each day, to remain ‘heart-to-heart’ with Our Lord. … a time of closeness to the One whom we love above all else.”

“If we remain docile in God’s hands, he shapes us to become a people of reconciliation, capable of openness and dialogue, acceptance and forgiveness, who make rivers of peace flow through the arid plains of violence,” he said.

“May you always be channels of the Lord’s consoling presence, joyous witnesses of the Gospel, prophets of peace amid the storms of violence, disciples of love, ever ready to care for the wounds of the poor and suffering. Thank you, brothers and sisters, I thank you again for your service and for your pastoral zeal. I bless you and carry you in my heart. And I ask you, please, always pray for me!”

The pope kissed his feet. Who is the cowboy-hat-wearing president of South Sudan?

Pope Francis greets South Sudanese president Salva Kiir at the Vatican, April 11, 2019. / Vatican Media

St. Louis, Mo., Feb 2, 2023 / 09:23 am (CNA).

Pope Francis, as part of his visit to Africa this week, is meeting with the president of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, this Friday. He will meet the leader for a photograph before retreating to a private setting for a talk. 

The 71-year-old Kiir, a Catholic who has served as South Sudan’s first and only president since the country gained independence in 2011, oversees a country that is slightly smaller than Texas, 60% Christian, and severely underdeveloped and racked by ethnic tensions. 

Pope Francis and Kiir met in 2019 in a meeting that was extremely memorable because of Pope Francis’ decision to kneel and kiss Kiir’s feet — and those of his rival, former vice president Riek Machar — while begging the leaders to make peace. Kiir and Machar were at the Vatican for a retreat, which Francis hosted specifically for the leaders who have been at war with each other for years. In 2013, a conflict developed between militias led by Machar and troops loyal to Kiir, who are of different tribal ethnicities. 

Both sides have been accused of serious atrocities over the course of the conflict, including the raping of women, the killing of civilians, and the recruitment of child soldiers. In addition to Kiir and Machar, Francis kissed the feet of at least two other South Sudanese leaders during the meeting. 

Kiir told EWTN News at the time that Pope Francis’ kissing of his feet, which garnered headlines around the world, left him “almost trembling.” He said the moment when the pope displayed such humility was inspiring to him as a Catholic and as the leader of a country.

“I felt humbled at the humility of the Holy Father, to bend down on the ground and kiss my feet,” Kiir told EWTN News in an interview May 7, 2019.

“I was almost trembling because that thing has not happened before, except at the time when Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. And it should have been the opposite; his disciples should have been the ones to wash his feet ... this is what came into my mind when the pope knelt down.”

Pope Francis at that retreat encouraged the South Sudanese leaders to “seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you” and told them he was praying for them to become peacemakers, who “build peace through dialogue, negotiation, and forgiveness.”

Kiir said his 2019 meeting with Pope Francis was especially meaningful for him, as he grew up in an area of South Sudan that was evangelized primarily by Catholic missionaries, from whom he has learned much. Christianity experienced extraordinary growth in South Sudan between 1901 and 1964 thanks to missionary activity undertaken by the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus and the Missionary Sisters Pie Madri della Nigrizia.

“Jesus came to the world to teach people to forgive and to live in peace with whoever is near you. And we as Catholics, especially in South Sudan, we have learned a lot from God’s teaching,” he reflected.  

Kiir is rarely seen without his distinctive Texas cowboy hat. His attachment to the headgear may have been kindled when Texan George W. Bush presented Kiir with a similar hat in 2006. 

Born in 1951, a young Kiir joined a separatist movement in the 1960s, fighting against the Sudanese government in the First Sudanese Civil War. He eventually became the leader of the military wing of the separatist movement, The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). He participated in negotiations with the northern government, which ultimately led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) of 2005, officially ending the war. Kiir became president of Southern Sudan, which was then an autonomous region. 

In 2011, the predominantly Christian South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, which has a Muslim majority and has been governed mostly by Islamic law since the 1980s. Kiir was overwhelmingly reelected to continue leading the new nation.

As president, he has led his country through another civil war, which has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced at least 2.2 million more. Along the way, Kiir’s leadership has garnered criticism — in part because of widespread corruption in his government but also because of alleged mistreatment of journalists.

Kiir and Machar signed a tenuous peace agreement in September 2018, which the country’s Catholic bishops have called “fatally flawed” because it does not address the complex root causes of the conflict. Several other peace agreements and cease-fires since then — including several mediated by the Catholic lay group Sant’Egidio — have not led to substantial peace progress, and millions of South Sudanese people live in poverty partly thanks to the country’s underdeveloped infrastructure and economy, despite the rich agricultural potential of the region.

Kiir announced late last year that he is running again for the presidency in 2024. Rumors have reportedly circulated recently on social media that the septuagenarian Kiir is unwell, though the government has denied this. 

Smithsonian staff kick out Catholic students for wearing pro-life hats

Twelve students from Our Lady of the Rosary School in Greenville, South Carolina, and their chaperones wore blue pro-life stocking caps that said “Rosary Pro-Life” to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum after they attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20, 2023. / Credit: WYFF4 News screen shot

Denver, Colo., Feb 2, 2023 / 07:51 am (CNA).

A group of Catholic students was wrongly kicked out of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum because museum staff reacted with hostility to their matching blue pro-life hats, their supporters say.

Twelve students from Our Lady of the Rosary School in Greenville, South Carolina, and their chaperones had attended the March for Life in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. They wore blue pro-life stocking caps that said “Rosary Pro-Life.”

After the rally, they visited the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, famous for its exhibits of the original 1903 Wright Flyer and the Apollo 11 Command Module.

Though other visitors wore various kinds of hats, according to attorney Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice, the students were treated differently. Sekulow said the students “were accosted several times and told they would be forced to leave unless they removed their pro-life hats.”

“The museum staff mocked the students, called them expletives, and made comments that the museum was a ‘neutral zone’ where they could not express such statements,” Sekulow said in a Jan. 27 statement. “The employee who ultimately forced the students to leave the museum was rubbing his hands together in glee as they exited the building.”

He characterized the treatment of the students as “blatant discrimination” and noted that the Smithsonian is a federal entity.

At least two students are being represented by the American Center for Law and Justice.

The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum said it has already made changes after the incident.

“Asking visitors to remove hats and clothing is not in keeping with our policy or protocols,” Alison Wood, the museum’s deputy director of communications, told Fox News. “We provided immediate training to prevent a re-occurrence of this kind of incident, and have determined steps to ensure this does not happen again.”

CNA sought comment from the museum but did not receive a response by publication.

Sekulow said legal action could be on the horizon.

“We are preparing to bring legal action to defend the constitutional rights of these children,” he said. “No one, especially kids, should have to fear being kicked out of a national museum by government officials simply for wearing a Christian pro-life hat.”

“This was a clear-cut First Amendment violation, not only of their freedom of speech but of religion as well,” Sekulow continued. “The federal government simply cannot ban speech with which it or its employees disagree.”

The Catholic Diocese of Charleston responded to the incident in a statement to the Greenville NBC affiliate KYFF4 News.

“Thousands of Catholic students attend the March for Life every year and we support their right to stand for life,” the diocese said.