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Bishops from Japan, U.S. call Catholics to work for nuclear disarmament

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Dennis Sadowski

CLEVELAND (CNS) -- The path to true peace requires the world to abolish nuclear weapons, an American bishop and a Japanese archbishop said as the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings at the end of World War II approached.

Speaking during a 30-minute webinar Aug. 3, Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, and Archbishop Joseph Mitsuaki Takami of Nagasaki, Japan, reiterated long-standing calls by the bishops' conferences of both countries that the world must reverse the path toward a renewed arms race because of the threat it poses to God's creation.

"As long as the idea that weapons are necessary for peacemaking persists, it will be difficult to even reduce the number of nuclear weapons, let alone to abolish nuclear weapons. It would be ideal if the U.S. and Japan could truly reconcile with each other and work together for the abolition of nuclear weapons," Archbishop Takami said.

Recalling the words of Pope Francis, who during his visit to Japan in November 2019 called the world to remember its moral obligation to rid the world of nuclear weapons, Bishop Malloy said that all nations must "find the means for complete and mutual disarmament based on a shared commitment and trust that needs to be fostered and deepened."

The bishops expressed concern that the world has overlooked the massive destructiveness of nuclear weapons as experienced in Japan in 1945 when U.S. atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima Aug. 6 and Nagasaki three days later.

Maryann Cusimano Love, associate professor of international politics at The Catholic University of America, hosted the prerecorded online event, introducing it with an overview of Catholic peacebuilding efforts in Japan and the United States.

She said church-based efforts are rooted in Catholic theology, which holds that just peace is possible through a sustained commitment to achieve nuclear abolition. She said the threat of nuclear war has grown in recent years as international arms control treaties have been abandoned and more nations seek to add such weapons of mass destruction to their arsenals.

Archbishop Takami, president of the Japanese bishops' conference, opened his remarks by explaining how he is a survivor of the bombing of Nagasaki, his hometown and the center of Japan's Catholic faith community. He was in his mother's womb at the time.

"I did not witness the horrific scenes that unfolded immediately following the bombing myself. But my maternal grandmother suffered burns all over her body and died a painful death after one week without receiving any medical attention," the archbishop said.

He recalled that two of his aunts died as a result of the bombing. "My married aunt's body was never found and her husband also died," he said.

Another aunt, a nun, was working outdoors when the bomb detonated. "She was exposed to the hot blast and was in pain for 12 days before dying," he said.

At Nagasaki's Urakami Cathedral, where 24 parishioners were preparing to receive the sacrament of reconciliation when the bomb exploded, little remained standing, he said.

Of the 12,000 parishioners about 8,500 died, the archbishop added. The bombing was "spiritually damaging" to many parishioners, who he said lost their faith and left the church.

Archbishop Takami drew widely from the words of St. John Paul II, who visited the two cities in 1981, delivering an urgent appeal that all people commit to a future without nuclear weapons.

The speech prompted the Japanese bishops' conference to designate the period from Aug. 6-15 each year as 10 Days of Prayer for Peace starting in 1982. During the time people are called to pray, reflect and act on behalf of peace, he said.

"Pope Francis went one step further and declared that the possession and use of nuclear are immoral," the archbishop added, describing one of the pontiff's address during his visit. "The pope stressed the need for unity and working together toward a world free of nuclear weapons and committed the church to the goal."

In response to Pope Francis' appeal, Bishop Alexis Mitsuru Shirahama of Hiroshima July 7 launched the Nuclear-Free World Foundation in collaboration with three peace organizations to support people working toward the ratification of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which was approved in 2017 by a majority of United Nations member states. The Holy See became one of the first entities to ratify the agreement.

The fund will support peacemakers' work until 50 nations ratify the pact. Through July 7, 39 nations had ratified it, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs reported.

Bishop Malloy said the U.S. bishops remain dedicated to the vision for disarmament expressed in their 1983 pastoral letter "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response."

The document committed the bishops, he said "to shaping the climate of opinion which will make it possible for our country to express profound sorrow over the atomic bombing of 1945. Without that sorrow, there is no possibility of finding a way of repudiating future use of nuclear weapons."

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can lead people to understand the "tremendous human suffering and human cost" that can occur when nuclear weapons are used in war, he said.

Bishop Malloy also cited the words of Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," in which the pontiff called all people to see the world as a gift from the love of God."

Later, the pope in Japan, Bishop Malloy added, reminded the world of the threat nuclear weapons pose to creation and to human dignity, thus making their possession and use immoral under Catholic teaching.

The prelates concluded the webinar with prayers in Japanese and English, respectively, seeking peace, reconciliation and understanding among all people.

The webinar was produced by the Catholic Peacebuilding Network and its Project for Revitalizing Catholic Engagement in Nuclear Disarmament and the Berkley Center for Religion Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski


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Film director switches formats, writes book on grandpa's WWII heroism

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Thomas Nelson

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Jon Erwin, in tandem with older brother Andrew, has directed movies with Christian themes over the past decade, including "October Baby" "I Can Only Imagine" and "I Still Believe."

But between movies, Erwin collaborated with William Doyle to write the book of his grandfather's service in World War II: "Beyond Valor: A World War II Story of Extraordinary Heroism, Sacrificial Love and a Race Against Time," which will be published Aug. 18.

Erwin's grandfather, Henry "Red" Erwin, received the Medal of Honor for his efforts in picking up a burning phosphorous bomb that had ignited prematurely and heaving it out of the B-29 "superfortress" aircraft. The bomb would have not only wiped out his aircraft and its crew, but wreaked havoc on a formation of B-29s headed to a mission over Japan.

Erwin, in a phone interview with Catholic News Service, said it was the first Medal of Honor OK'd by President Harry Truman; Red's mission took place the day after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death.

"He was really burned," Erwin said of Red, a lifelong Methodist he called "Granddad" growing up. One of Red's duties aboard the aircraft was to drop phosphorus bombs through a chute in the aircraft's floor. The one that ignited prematurely came back up through the chute and Red fully absorbed the flames.

"I was laying on the deck, and I was in sheer agony," Red recalled in "Beyond Valor." "(Crewmates) Bill Loesch and Herb Schnipper got the first aid kit down, and I told Herb to give me a syrette of morphine. But they wanted to keep giving me morphine, and as the plane's first aid man, I knew that was dangerous. I was mortally afraid they were going to give me too much morphine." He told his crewmates, "You're going to kill me if you give me more morphine."

"He was praying to God and to his mother," Schnipper remembered.

"Starting with a colonel who was on board the plane," Erwin told CNS, "they were so moved by the extreme level of sacrifice and heroism he displayed, they woke up (Gen.) Curtis LeMay the next morning, who was like the (Gen. George) Patton of the Pacific, and used his abrasiveness to get it (the Medal of Honor request) to Washington immediately." Truman gave quick approval.

"LeMay really was insistent that he wanted to pin the medal around my grandfather's neck before what they thought was his death," Erwin said. But Medals of Honor don't grow on trees, and next to none were to be found in the Pacific.

But there was one in a display case at Pearl Harbor, Erwin said. "It was a very long flight (made by) a secret crew. They smashed the window ... and they got it to the general's office and he pinned it on my grandfather's neck just seven days after the incident."

Erwin added there was serious doubt about Red's survival due to the extent of his injuries. He had third-degree burns; the flaming bomb seared off an ear and obliterated his nose. But Red Erwin didn't die. He underwent numerous skin grafts and surgeries as well as arduous physical rehabilitation over the next two years, and he lived 57 years after war's end, until 2002. He died at age 80.

One big part may have been Red's wife, Betty. Before the incident, Erwin said, "he was a good-looking guy. He was terrified at what she would think. ... A lot of guys thought their wives would disown them. ... He was down to about 85 pounds and had already endured about two dozen surgeries. But she touched the only unburned portion of his cheek, kissed him and said, 'I love you.'"

Erwin's father, Henry Jr., kept Red's story alive in 2006 with his self-published book "When Courage Calls: The Red Erwin Story," but now Erwin says that "on behalf of the family," he considers himself to be "the custodian of the story." And, as a filmmaker, he's not about to let the movie rights go.

His one regret: "I didn't really listen to his stories like I should have. I wasn't listening, and I wasn't as interested in the Greatest Generation and the war that they fought and the times that they lived in. I would give anything to go back and have those conversations now."

"Folks, take the time to sit down and listen to your grandparents," he advised.

However, over 15 years, Erwin discovered crewmates and others who knew his grandfather to help fill in the story and flesh out his portrait of Granddad. Grandmother Betty "knew what I was up to," he said, but she never allowed him to read the love letters they exchanged during the war; he saw them only after she'd died a few years ago.

One thing he learned anew in writing the book" "Going up and beyond the call of duty is something we can all apply to what Jesus said. 'If you go one mile, go two.' Do more than what is required of you. It's one of the defining characteristics of being a Christian."


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Update: German author says retired Pope Benedict is 'extremely frail'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sven Hoppe, pool via Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An author with a long and close relationship to retired Pope Benedict XVI told a German newspaper that the 93-year-old retired pope is "extremely frail."

Peter Seewald, the author who has published four wide-ranging book-length interviews with the retired pope, was quoted in the Aug. 3 edition of the Bavarian newspaper Passauer Neue Presse.

Seewald said he visited with Pope Benedict Aug. 1 to present him with a copy of the authorized biography, "Benedict XVI: A Life."

The retired pope lives in the Mater Ecclesia monastery in the Vatican Gardens. Seewald said he visited with the former pontiff there in the company of Archbishop Georg Ganswein, Pope Benedict's personal secretary.

Passauer Neue Presse reported Seewald describing Pope Benedict as "extremely frail," and as saying that while he is mentally sharp, his voice is barely audible.

The Vatican press office said late Aug. 3 that Archbishop Ganswein insisted there was no reason "for particular concern" over the retired pope's health "other than that of a 93-year-old who is overcoming the most acute phase of a painful, but not serious, illness" -- herpes zoster, commonly known as shingles.

Pope Benedict had traveled to Regensburg, Germany, in late June to visit his brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, who was ill and died July 1. Seewald reportedly told the newspaper that Pope Benedict returned to the Vatican "seriously ill" and that he was suffering from a painful case of shingles on his face.

The newspaper also reported that, according to Pope Benedict's spiritual testament, he wants to be buried in the grotto under St. Peter's Basilica in the chapel where St. John Paul II originally was laid to rest before being moved upstairs to the St. Sebastian Chapel in the basilica after his beatification in 2011.

In 1981, Pope John Paul had called him to serve as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The two worked closely for the next 24 years, until St. John Paul's death in 2005.


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Update: Is 2020 the year that gets young people to polls in bigger numbers?

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tom Brenner, Reuters

By Betty Araya

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Steven Millies, a scholar who explores the Catholic Church's relationship to politics, feels more optimistic today than he has in a long time about young people in this country voting in a national election.

The reason for his optimism? The young people who continue to protest the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American, at the hands of white police officers, and demand racial justice. Millies predicts this activism will motivate young people to go to the polls Nov. 3.

"I'm frankly more encouraged than I have been in a long time by what we've seen on the streets in the last six weeks or so, because it's a lot of different kinds of people who have taken to the streets since George Floyd," said Millies, an associate professor of public theology and director of The Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union.

The United States has the lowest voter turnout of youth in the world.

For most national elections in the United States, youth have been underrepresented at the polls ever since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972, according to an academic paper, "Technology and Politics: Incentives for Youth Participation," by Shanto Iyengar and Simon Jackman of Stanford University.

In 1976, one of the first elections in which 18-year-olds were able to vote, 18- to 24-year-olds made up 18% of all eligible voters in America, but only 13% actually voted -- an under-representation of one-third, according to Iyengar and Jackman. In the next election in 1978, youth were underrepresented by 50%. In the 1996 presidential election, the number of young voters was 20%. In 1998, out of the 13% eligible youth voters in America, only 5% voted.

Accordong to Tobi Walker in National Civic Review, the 2004 election was considered a "banner year in the history of youth voting" up to that point, with 47% of American young people casting their ballots. Then came the 2008 U.S. presidential election: Compared to four years earlier, the number of youth voters tripled and even quadrupled in some states.

In the 2016 elections, according to U.S. census data, nearly 36% of 18- to 29-year-olds reported voting, a 16% leap from the turnout in the 2014 midyear elections.

So why should anybody vote anyway? The Catholic Church sees voting as a moral obligation. The U.S. Catholic bishops' quadrennial document "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship" provides guidance to Catholic voters during a presidential election year and advises people they should be guided by their conscience rather than party affiliation.

"You have to deal with this (voting) in the crucible of your conscience and figure out what's the right thing. And the Catholic standing next to you might see it very differently. And that is actually a good picture of what the length and breadth of the tradition tells us," said Millies in an interview with Catholic News Service.

"I think 'Faithful Citizenship' is a good first step because it really sets forth the idea that we all have to weigh these things in good conscience sincerely according to what the faith tells us."

Millies added, "It's not a formation for voting, it's a formation for Christian life, for the world."

Asked whether there is such a thing as a Catholic vote, he debunked the notion, referencing a study done by Pew a year ago. The study broke down data on Catholics from different parties on various issues.

"Statistically, they're identical and so our real preferences are cooked by our lived experience in the world and the same kinds of divisions that plague us in political life plague us in church life because we live in the world," said Millies, who also is the author of the book "Good Intentions: A History of Catholic Voters' Road from Roe to Trump," which looks at voting patterns of Catholics over the past 50 years.

Jo Renee Formicola, professor of political science at Seton Hall University, said: "We're all human beings and we all weigh things in different ways. We all have a conscience that's informed in a different way."

"Faithful Citizenship" says it's important for Catholics "to see beyond party politics, to analyze campaign rhetoric critically, and to choose their political leaders according to principle, not party affiliation or mere self-interest."

Formicola urged avoiding politician's rhetoric, which she said is a tool they all use to develop their brand but is a simplistic way to decide how to vote.

"They (politicians) try to show why it is they're totally unique; why they're the only ones who can solve a particular problem or a particular issue. And so, a lot of them do it rhetorically. They try to do it with simple words in a simple way," Formicola told CNS.

"But politics is very nuanced. You know, no issue is simply binary," she said, using as an example the current debate over policing in the country.

"That's not a binary decision where we completely defund all police and get rid of police departments. Or that we completely and totally support everything that the police do and their unions. This is a very nuanced question, which we may have to come to the center and say well, it's not one or the other. It might be something in between, like reform," she said.

To consider the complexity of political issues and confidently vote, Formicola suggested further educating oneself. "The choice is always yours. But the choice really has to be an informed choice, one in which you understand the legal implications of what you're doing and then the other one in which you have to understand the moral implications of what you're doing," she said.

Formicola criticized the media, stating that headlines are "not as critical as knowing where these people stand on issues that are really going to impact you and your family and the society in which you live."

"I think I would always argue for 'Go out. Learn what's going on, talk to different people.' Don't live in an echo chamber. Don't get on social media and just talk to the same kind of people over and over and over and over. You have to expand your mind and know what's going on," said Formicola.

She said she urges her students to consider their Catholicism, the same thing she said the bishops have asked. "I think every individual has an obligation to express their values. And if your values are Catholic values, you should not discount them or treat them as anything less important."

"And that's one of the things that I teach when I teach Catholics in the political process. I try to just make students aware of the fact that Catholics do have a role to play," she said. "They have a specific value system. And if they want to advance that value system, then they have to do it through the political process."

Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service who is executive director of the Catholic social justice lobby Network, echoed that view, saying, "Voting is the way we express our values. It's how we hire the people who lead our country, and it's an integral part of Catholic social teaching."

"The most important concrete step I think we can take would be to destroy the notion that being Catholic out in a world where people disagree with us ... (is being) naive," said Millies, reiterating that Catholic youth should not only vote, but do it holding onto their faith.


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Czerny: Pandemic made people grasp role of migrants as essential workers

IMAGE: CNS photo/Shannon VanRaes, Reuters

By Sarah Mac Donald

DUBLIN (CNS) -- The coronavirus pandemic "opened our eyes to the peripheries in our midst," specifically to the contribution of migrant workers in essential services such as health care, transportation, sanitation and agriculture, said Cardinal Michael Czerny.

The undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development noted that, "paradoxically we had to be as shocked and stuck" during lockdown before "our eyes began to open."

On World Day Against Trafficking in Persons July 30, the Canadian prelate took part in a webinar, "Overcoming Indifference to Migrants and Refugees," organized by the international Catholic weekly The Tablet.

He told participants that many would acknowledge that it was only when people were locked down and everything came to "a grinding halt" that their eyes were opened to the fact that some of their most basic needs were being met by migrant workers.

"Here in Italy, it was a real eye-opener for people to realize how many of these people there are, the kind of work they are doing, and the kind of situation they are living in," the cardinal said. "I have a feeling that public opinion in Italy swung in favor of migrant workers in a remarkable way over these months. Whether this is having an effect on policy, I don't know.

"This year of COVID-19, with its terrible toll of suffering and death, may also be looked back on as a year of revelation."

The 74-year-old Czechoslovakian-born Canadian, whose family fled their home after World War II, also suggested that the restrictions imposed on public worship during the COVID-19 pandemic had torn the church loose from some certainties or assumptions, such as the relationship between faith life and the territorial parish.

"I think COVID-19 said the fact that you live within this particular square mile does not define your faith life nearly as much as you thought. You found yourself 'going to Mass' somewhere much further away -- maybe on the other side of the planet -- and you found yourself relating to people in new ways that are not limited to the territorial parish."

He wondered if the number of people drifting from the church is "an indication that this parish structure has reached a kind of limit in its functionality" and observed that COVID-19 and electronic means "conspired to give us a kick into the future that might have taken 20 or 30 more years to play itself out under more normal circumstances."

Elsewhere in his discussion with journalist Christopher Lamb, the cardinal criticized the media for its continued emphasis on statistics and trends about migrants and refugees and for "carping on" about "the global crisis." Refugees, he underlined, are a tiny minority of those who move every year around the world.

Discussing the rise in anti-migrant rhetoric among political leaders, he said: "One of the major puzzles of our time is that the same society that people live in decently and cooperatively seems to tolerate this kind of distortion of reality. I think it has something to do with the very rapid evolution of media, to the point that we have lost our bearings in terms of what is true, what is plausible and what is believable. The more shocking, somehow the more credible. I don't remember shock value ever being a valid criterion for truth. Yet it seems to be that the more outrageous, the more contrary sounding, the angrier -- somehow the more credible. This is a problem for all of us, and I think it is really urgent to find a way through this."

Part of the problem, he stressed, is that people are not hearing the human stories of migrants and refugees. If this happened, "The majority of people would realize that they are scapegoating this small number of people, who are doing exactly what all of us would do if we were in the same circumstances."

They also would understand that this small minority who have been forced to flee their homes do not represent a threat or "a danger to our economy, our society, our civilization or our families and that there are other much more serious problems for which the politicians are responsible that they should be busy with."

Asked what the faithful can do to concretely to overcome indifference to migrants and refugees, Cardinal Czerny pointed to Pope Francis' 2015 appeal to parishes and religious communities to host a family. He cited Canada's long-standing community sponsorship program, which provided his own family with the opportunity to begin their lives again after they found themselves in "an increasingly desperate situation in 1948."


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Update: Faith leaders criticize Trump's plan to reject new DACA applicants

IMAGE: CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Faith leaders and immigrant advocates have denounced the Trump administration's plan to reject first-time applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, and limit DACA renewals to one-year extensions instead of two.

Leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said they were "deeply disappointed" with the administration's action, announced July 28 in a memo issued by the Department of Homeland Security, and Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, California, described the decision as "irresponsible and recalcitrant."

The memo was written by Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and issued more than a month after the Supreme Court ruled against efforts by the Trump administration to end DACA.

When the administration failed to move on DACA after this ruling, a federal judge in Maryland July 24 said it had to publicly clarify the status of the DACA program within 30 days.

DACA, a program that was started in 2012 by President Barack Obama with an executive order, has enabled about 700,000 qualifying young people, described as "Dreamers," to work, go to college, get health insurance, a driver's license and not face deportation. These young adults were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents without legal documentation.

Wolf said the administration may try to end DACA by looking at it as a law enforcement issue potentially contributing to illegal immigration. He said the current measure is a temporary change while the federal government takes time to review future actions.

In the memo, Wolf said: "DACA makes clear that, for certain large classes of individuals, DHS will at least tolerate, if not affirmatively sanction, their ongoing violation of the immigration laws."

For now, the biggest impact will be on those who would have been new applicants. Attorneys for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, known as CLINIC, have said that about 60,000 young people now over age 15 would now qualify for DACA status and had been urging young people to get their paperwork together and to seek legal advice about the program since the Supreme Court ruled in June that DACA would remain in place.

Under the new plan for DACA spelled out in the memo, the government also will deny requests by DACA recipients to visit their home countries except under "exceptional circumstances."

"The new limits outlined in the administration's memorandum directly and negatively impact immigrant youth, their families, and the communities we serve," said a July 30 statement by Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, USCCB president, and Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville of Washington, who is chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Migration.

The bishops said the Catholic Church in the United States has long advocated for the Dreamers, the term given to DACA recipients, and said they will "continue to stand with them."

They urged the president to "reinstate the original protections that DACA provides to young people currently enrolled in the program" and to accept new DACA applicants. They also urged the Senate to join the House in "passing legislation that provides both certainty and a path to citizenship for Dreamers."

Bishop Soto, chairman of the board of CLINIC, criticized the decision's timing, in the middle of a pandemic, and said it signified a return "to the same callous posture, against which the court has already decided." He also said the move will "aggravate the afflictions of many DACA recipients and aspirants, a significant portion of whom are essential workers" who are keeping vital parts of the economy running during the pandemic.

The bishop went on to say, in a statement, that the directives "make no moral or practical sense" and will "only further cripple the recovery, especially for the vulnerable."

"DACA recipients are vital to their families and to our country, which has become their home. They are our neighbors." He urged the administration not to end DACA and work with Congress to create a path to citizenship for the program's beneficiaries.

Hope Border Institute tweeted July 28 the administration's action, on the heels of the Supreme Court's decision and federal rulings, "touches upon fundamental issues of rule of law and separation of powers. DHS and the President are not above the law."

The Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life Action Fund, criticized Trump for "using the real lives of young immigrants as bait to lure racist support for his reelection. He should be ashamed. Congress cannot let him get away with this cruel act. They must pass the Dream and Promise Act right now for DACA recipients and others who live in fear of deportation."

And Krish O'Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said the administration's action is "flouting immigration-related court orders left and right."

She called on Americans to take action in defense of DACA recipients, acknowledging they are "every bit as American as us, and it is well past time we enshrine in law that their home is here."

During a July 28 news briefing, the president said: "We're going to work with a lot of people on DACA."

Without giving any details, he added: "We are going to make DACA happy and the DACA people and representatives happy, and we're also going to end up with a fantastic merit-based immigration system."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

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Copyright © 2020 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]

Religious brother uses gifts as liturgical artist to heal wounds of racism

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Oblate Brother Mickey McGrath

By Gina Christian

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) -- As the nation continues to grapple with the issue of racism, an acclaimed liturgical artist and retreat leader is using his gifts to foster healing and justice.

Oblate Brother Mickey McGrath has created a series of images that take a faith-based look at the struggle for racial equality. From his studio in Camden, New Jersey, Brother McGrath has been posting his recent work on Facebook, often in the form of coloring pages that viewers can download and use as meditative art exercises.

One image in particular has received international attention: a striking portrait of Christ falling under the weight of the cross, above which the words "I can't breathe" are painted in red.

The phrase was among the last uttered by George Floyd, who died May 25 after close to nine minutes in a Minneapolis police knee-to-neck restraint. Floyd's killing has sparked global waves of protest, with calls for police reform and a renewed look at race relations.

Brother McGrath, said the depiction was adapted from a set of Stations of the Cross he had completed two years ago in Kenya.

"If we could see Jesus as a Black man falling under a cross, as a man who can't breathe, maybe that will make people see him in others," said Brother McGrath, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, who is a former professor at De Sales University.

African American spirituality has had a profound influence on his life and work, he said.

In 1993, while still teaching part time at De Sales, the Philadelphia native traveled back to the city's Mayfair section to visit his dying father. At his parents' house, Brother McGrath came across a magazine article on Sister Thea Bowman (1937-1990), the first African American member of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who was 9 years old when she decided to become a Catholic. She's now on the path to sainthood.

"I later saw a video about her life, and it changed me forever," said Brother McGrath. "She unleashed something in me, and my artistic style shifted to something different than anything I'd ever done. She has become my guiding force."

Shortly after discovering Bowman's life and work, Brother McGrath became a full-time artist and received his first commission, painting the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth in Luke 1:39-56 at the request of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis.

The work features a joyous embrace between Mary and Elizabeth, who appear as Black and dressed in vivid African-style prints. The title, "Windsock Visitation," recalls the sisters' tradition of hanging windsocks outside of their house on days when they offer afterschool activities for neighborhood children.

Brother McGrath said the women have become his "dearest friends," and like him, they live amid an impoverished but richly diverse urban community, one in which he feels quite at home.

"My studio is my monk's cell," he said, adding that his work is not intended as a pious diversion.

"This is my way of trying to get people to see Christ in each other," Brother McGrath told, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Referencing a coloring page he posted on Facebook for the feast of Corpus Christi, he said that "the idea is not just to go to adoration and come home and feel good about yourself."

"I told my students that all the time," said Brother McGrath. "If you go back to class and don't see Christ in the Black person ... then you've missed the point."

He added that the city of Camden itself has made progress in healing some of the tensions between residents, most of whom are of color, and law enforcement.

Once dubbed the nation's most dangerous city, Camden disbanded and reconfigured its police department in 2012. Although substantial challenges remain, the municipality is now considered a model for others seeking to overcome violence and racial division. A recent anti-racism protest saw Camden police joining demonstrators.

"It was a peaceful rally, full of trust in the police," said Brother McGrath. "It ended on the steps of the police building, around the corner from where I live."

In the coming months, Brother McGrath intends to publish a book of his images, which he often designs using an iPad. He maintains a full schedule, traveling extensively across the globe to lead retreats, workshops and art-themed tours.

He said his life's motto is a quote from Dostoevsky, who wrote that "beauty will save the world," an assertion endorsed by Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and herself a candidate for sainthood, and cited by St. John Paul II in his 1999 "Letter to Artists."

Along with love, said Brother McGrath, "beauty is our deepest human inclination."

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Christian is a senior content producer for, the news website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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COVID pandemic should raise questions about faith, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Isabel Infantes, PA Images via Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Besides the immediate considerations of trying to stay healthy, to mourn the dead and protect others, the coronavirus pandemic should be prompting Christians to reflect on their faith, Pope Francis wrote.

"The pandemic poses fundamental questions about happiness in our lives and about the treasure of our Christian faith," he wrote in the preface to a short book of initial theological reflections prompted by COVID-19 and its global impact.

Originally published in German with the title, "Being Christians in the Coronavirus Crisis," the book was curated by Cardinal Walter Kasper and Pallottine Father George Augustin, director of the Cardinal Walter Kasper Institute for Ecumenism, Theology, and Spirituality.

The Italian edition, titled "Communion and Hope," was published in late July by the Vatican publishing house. In addition to the preface by Pope Francis and essays by Cardinal Kasper and Father Augustin, the book includes essays by: U.S. Paulist Father Mark-David Janus, who was struck by the virus; the Czech theologian Father Tomas Halik; Swiss Cardinal Kurt Koch, who succeeded Cardinal Kasper as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity; and Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, Italy.

"This crisis represents an alarm that leads to a reflection on where we sink the deepest roots that support all of us in a storm," the pope wrote. "It reminds us that we have forgotten and neglected some of the important things in life and makes us reflect on what is truly important and necessary and what is less important or only apparently so."

While the initial period of lockdown was "a painful time of eucharistic fasting" for many Catholics, it also showed them that Christ is present, as he promised, where two or three gather in his name, the pope said.

As the pandemic continues, he said, Christians should turn more resolutely to God, "our help and our aim," and should listen more carefully to the cry of the poor and of the earth.

Theological reflection on the pandemic and the experience of the past months, he wrote, should give rise to "new hope and new solidarity."


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Archbishop: Mass burials common as Nigerians face daily violence

IMAGE: CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters

By Bronwen Dachs

Faith communities in Nigeria face daily violence and persecution, a U.S.-based rights group said. It called for U.S. intervention after a terrorist group executed five men abducted while providing assistance in northeastern Nigeria.

While Christians, particularly preachers, "are clearly the targets" of militants in the West African country, Muslims are killed too, said Archbishop Matthew Ndagoso of Kaduna, who chairs the bishops' committee on justice, development and peace.

Militants and also bandits act with impunity, he said, noting that all Nigerian civilians feel vulnerable and "let down by the government."

In its recent report, the U.S.-based International Committee on Nigeria said the United States "needs to send a special envoy for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, who can coordinate the U.S. response to the crisis."

Nigeria has suffered more than 10 years of killings, abductions and other abuses by armed Islamist groups. In the hardest-hit northeast region of the country, tens of thousands of people have been killed and about 2 million displaced.

The United Nations said it was "utterly shocked and horrified" after a video surfaced July 22 showing five men kneeling and blindfolded. They were then shot. The men -- three were aid workers -- had been traveling in Borno state when they were kidnapped.

With abductions commonplace along Nigeria's roads, people are terrified to use them to go about their daily business, Archbishop Ndagoso told Catholic News Service July 29.

Mass burials have become very common, he said.

In early June, the bishop of Kafanchan had to see to the burial of nine people who had been hacked to death, while "the police were nowhere to be seen," he said. The killings were among assaults on Christian communities in southern Kaduna state by Fulani militia.

Nigeria has a decades-old cycle of conflict between predominantly Christian farmers and ethnic Fulani herdsmen who are Muslim, partly due to competition for arable land.

President Muhammadu Buhari, a Muslim and a former military ruler, won office in a democratic transfer of power in 2015 and is in his second term. In 2018, Nigeria's bishops criticized the president's lack of action against Fulani militia and linked his inaction to his religion.

Perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Nigeria "appear more emboldened as the political will to professionally investigate the crimes and hold perpetrators accountable is grossly lacking," the ICON report said.

"Victims are being forced to convert to Islam or risk being killed, raped, or subjected to gruesome acts of torture," it said, noting that 16-year-old Leah Sharibu has yet to be freed. Leah was taken hostage two years ago with more than 100 girls in the town of Dapchi by Boko Haram insurgents. When the others were freed a month later, she was the only one not released -- reportedly because she refused to renounce her Christian faith.

"Instead of taking action to stop the violence, the country's own government has stood by idly as the blood of innocent Nigerian people has been spilled at the hands of the Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram and Fulani militants," ICON said.

Boko Haram "targets Christians, other non-Muslims, and even Muslims opposed to their ideologies," while attacks by Fulani militants "have repeatedly demonstrated a clear intent to target Christians," it said.

Its report provides data it claims is "evidence that genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity have been and continue to be committed."

From 2000 to 2019, "deaths resulting from Fulani militant attacks include 17,284 across Nigeria and 13,079 in predominantly Christian states (Benue, Kaduna, Plateau and Taraba)," the report said.

In June, the U.S. State Department noted that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in "violent attacks by terrorist groups or criminal gangs, in intercommunal violence, or due to their religious beliefs" and urged the Nigerian government to do more "to address this violence, hold those responsible accountable, and protect civilians."

Archbishop Ndagoso said Nigerians "see injustices everywhere," with corruption rampant among the country's politicians and traditional leaders.

Twenty people can be killed and there will be no arrests, he said. "Bandits will have cellphones and use them to negotiate ransoms, yet there will be no arrests," he said.

Fulani militants "make their homes on land that they occupy after killing people and burning their houses," he said.

"People feel helpless and frustrated," the archbishop said. "Government says they are doing their best" to fight corruption, but "if that is so, then their best is not good enough," he said.

Nigeria has nearly 196 million people, and about 40% live in poverty, according to its statistics office. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country with its biggest economy.

"Nigeria has an abundance of resources, both human and material," Archbishop Ndagoso said. But its political leaders are "only interested in amassing wealth for themselves and their families. There's no interest in the common good," he said.

"It's planting season now, but people can't go out on their fields for fear of being killed and therefore they can't eat," the archbishop said. "As the saying goes, a hungry man is an angry man."

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Contributing to this story was Peter Ajayi Dada in Lagos, Nigeria.

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Editors: Coverage of international religious freedom issues by Catholic News Service is made possible in part by Aid to the Church in Need-USA (


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Update: German bishops continue debate over Vatican document on parishes

IMAGE: CNS photo/Maria Irl, KNA


BONN, Germany (CNS) -- The Vatican instruction on the reform of Catholic parishes continues to stir debate in Germany, where some bishops say the current parish model with a priest in charge is no longer sustainable because of a lack of vocations.

Cardinal Walter Kasper defended the paper following widespread criticism, such as by Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, who said: "In no manner does the instruction take note of the fact that we in Germany -- but also in many other countries of the universal church -- can no longer shape church life according to the model of the people's church we have known up till now." Critics especially cited the lack of priests.

The German Catholic news agency KNA reported that, in a guest commentary for the church website in Cologne, Cardinal Kasper wrote: "The German criticism completely misses the actual point of the instruction, the pastoral conversion to missionary pastoral work."

Cardinal Kasper, who was responsible for ecumenical relations at the Vatican for many years, said the first chapters of the document and the summary made extensive reference to the common responsibility of the whole congregation. Emphasizing the responsibility of the parish priest was theologically legitimate, he said.

He added that the "perennial debate" over celibacy, the ordination of women priests and management teams was causing uncertainty, which was to blame for the shortage of priests, alongside other factors. The cardinal said the document tied bishops to enforceable criteria if they want to restructure parishes.

Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki also praised the instruction and thanked Pope Francis for the guidance it provided.

The 22-page document, titled "The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the church," was released by the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy July 20.

While it does not introduce new legislation on pastoral care, the Vatican press office said it was developed by the congregation as a guide related "to the various projects of reform of parish communities and diocesan restructuring, already underway or in the planning process." It also clarifies the role of the deacons, consecrated men and women, as well as the laity, in dioceses where there is a shortage or lack of priests.

Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt said the instruction provided valuable impetus for a missionary awakening in the parishes.

"The document encourages and supports all those who have already taken such paths," Bishop Hanke said July 28.

"Pastoral conversion as a vitalization of the missionary spirit should renew the local church, the parish with its traditional structures. This renewal process is done through evangelization." Bishop Hanke said the instruction from Rome should not be seen as "a struggle for the roles in the church or being in terms of winners and losers."

By contrast, Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg criticized the document, reported KNA.

"As learners we gladly accept suggestions," Bishop Feige wrote in pastoral letter to members of his diocese. "As a bishop, however, I won't let myself be paralyzed and blocked by their restrictive orders, since much in it is quite unrealistic -- especially with regard to our extreme diaspora situation, which they evidently cannot imagine -- and since no positive solutions are indicated in view of the mounting lack of priests."

Bishop Feige said the document will demotivate some people from working for the Catholic Church at all. He warned that the structure of the church will change even more dramatically than before.

"It does not help at all just to conjure up noble principles and to refer to canonical guidelines," he said.

Instead, there should be a responsible, sensitive and creative consideration of what form parishes can survive in given the circumstances.

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabruck called the instruction "a strong brake on the motivation and the appreciation of the services of laypeople." Bishop Bode is chairman of the forum on the role of women in the church, one of four forums of the Synodal Path reform dialogue in the Catholic Church in Germany, and deputy president of the German bishops' conference.

He said the Vatican instruction had taken the bishops completely by surprise and that he would have expected it to be preceded by an examination of the realities of local parish life on the ground, and to have shown greater respect for the frequently pledged synodality.

Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz wrote in a statement that he could "not simply accept" what he described as an "interference" in his episcopal office. The pastoral theologian said the instruction left him worried about "the many who are (still) committed." He stressed: "Soon they will have (had) enough if their commitment is only suspiciously watched and evaluated from on high."

He added that he was worried about the priests in his diocese.

"We can't fill vacant positions as it is. Many priests complain that they are overwhelmed by the administration and bureaucracy." He said it also seemed "absurd to have every merging of parishes approved by Rome on a case-by-case basis."

The Vatican instruction bars laypeople from leading parishes and emphasizes the role of priests. It directly opposes efforts to hand over the management of parishes to teams made up of priests and dedicated church members as well as other staff.

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, head of the Vatican's Congregation for Clergy, told KNA he would be happy to speak with the bishops to alleviate their concerns about the document.

Earlier in July, KNA reported that in the Munster Diocese, the pastoral guidance of a Catholic parish is being conducted by a layman and not a priest. The diocese called it an experiment with a new governance model. The parish was to be headed by a pastoral assistant, who has a degree in theological studies. His job is to perform pastoral care, but pastoral assistants are not ordained priests and may marry and have a family.

"There are simply not enough priests around who can assume the duties of a leading pastor," stressed Munster Auxiliary Bishop Christoph Hegge.

Similar leadership models have also been introduced in other dioceses, in some cases with women holding positions. For example, the Osnabruck Diocese appointed a woman as the pastoral envoy for the North Sea island of Langeoog, supported by a "moderating priest" from the diocese.

The Vatican recently stopped plans drafted by the Trier Diocese to establish 38 large-scale parishes to be co-led by a priest and a group of laypeople.

Matthias Kopp, spokesman for the German bishops' conference, said the bishops will carefully study the Vatican document and discuss it at their next meeting.

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