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One-Minute Homily: “How to be a Saint”

What does it take to be a Saint? Brian Strassburger, SJ, reflects on the diversity of people that God calls to holiness in this week’s One-Minute Homily. Based on the readings for Sunday, January 20, which you can find here: https://bit.ly/2SJQxgv

Marchers urged to stand strong, fight for life with 'compassion, hope'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Julie Asher

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Those who stand up for the dignity of life in all its stages and want to see this respect for all life enshrined once again in U.S. law have a friend in the Pence family and the Trump administration, Vice President Mike Pence told the March for Life crowd on the National Mall Jan. 18.

Pence and second lady Karen Pence were a surprise addition to the roster of speakers at the rally, and after his remarks, the vice president introduced a videotaped message by President Donald Trump, which also was unexpected.

"We're the Pences and we're pro-life," the vice president said to the cheering crowd.

"We gather here because we stand for life and believe as our Founding Fathers did that life born and unborn is endowed with certain unalienable rights, and the first of those is life," Pence said.

In his message, Trump said the pro-life movement is "founded on love and grounded in the nobility and dignity of every human life. I will always defend the first right in our Declaration of Independence: the right to life."

Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, welcomed the crowd and thanked them for coming once again to march to end abortion, what she called "the greatest human rights abuse of our time."

She asked the crowd if they will keep marching to fight abortion, to march for the "poorest of the poor" and those who cannot march for themselves until "we no longer need to march" and abortion "is unthinkable." She received a resounding "yes" to each question.

Looking out from the speakers' platform, she declared the crowd to be bigger than she has ever seen in her seven years as head of March for Life.

No official crowd counts are available for such events, but ahead of this year's rally and march, organizers expected more than 100,000 to participate.

"We must keep marching for life every day of the year," Mancini said, and she asked each marcher to share his or her pro-life story on social media because even of those stories about "why we march" can change others' minds about abortion.

Before she gave her remarks, Mancini introduced Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-life Activities. He offered the opening prayer for the march and also urged the crowd to go "change the world!"

In a statement issued later in the day to mark the upcoming Jan. 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Archbishop Naumann called on the faithful "to pray for an end to the human rights abuse of abortion, and for a culture of life, where through God's grace all will come to know they are made in his divine image."

The theme for this year's March for Life was "Unique From Day One: Pro-life Is Pro-science," focusing on how scientific advancements reveal "the humanity of the unborn child from the moment of conception."

In his remarks, Pence urged the pro-lifers to stand up for God's creation, spread their message with compassion and hope, and not let their detractors dissuade them.

In 1973 with its Roe decision, he said, the Supreme Court turned "its back on life" but the pro-life movement was born, "motivated by love and truth," and has been "winning hearts and minds ever since," he added.

"We know in our heart of hearts, life is winning in America once again," he said, pointing out the many pregnancy centers helping women across the nation, adoptive families "who open their hearts and homes," and pro-life leaders who have stepped up to serve in the government.

Other speakers included Ben Shapiro, editor-in-chief of The Daily Wire; three members of Congress -- Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, and Reps. Dan Lipinski, D-Illinois and Chris Smith, R-New Jersey; a Democratic member of the Louisiana Legislature, Rep. Katrina Jackson; Alveda King, Priests for Life's director of civil rights for the unborn; and Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, CEO of the Knights of Columbus.

Shapiro said the Democratic Party has "embraced abortion as a sacrament," but he also was critical of Republicans in Congress for not stepping up to halt federal funding of Planned Parenthood.

He said the pro-life movement has been deemed to be "out of line with society," noting that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau just said that recently. The media "will ignore us," Shapiro continued, and will pay more attention to "the five who show up tomorrow," referring to the Women's March scheduled for Jan. 19 in Washington.

But it's OK to be "out of line," Shapiro said, because "righteousness doesn't have to be popular, just righteous."

Smith told the crowd that the new Democratic majority in the House "has made it clear that they want to eviscerate all pro-life protections including the Hyde taxpayer abortion funding ban which alone has saved over 2 million people from death by abortion."

After the rally, the massive crowd began heading up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court. Marchers carried signs big and small -- and some had huge banners proclaiming respect for life.

It was a multicolored sea of people, old and young, with some sporting bright blue knit hats, others wearing neon yellow hooded sweatshirts. Mixed in were Franciscans and Dominicans and other men and women religious in their habits.

Some predicted the partial government shutdown would alter the plans for the March for Life, or at least keep crowds from coming. Some worried bad weather predicted for parts of the Midwest and the Washington region would impede travelers heading East and reduce the numbers.

But there was no weather event to speak of, and the sun even shined for a time midday. The worst obstacle was a muddy Mall and some mounds of icy snow here and there -- the result of a snowstorm early in the week, and as Mancini told the crowd, pro-lifers come whether it is raining, sleeting or blizzarding.

As the March for Life rally was about to get underway, Caitlyn Dixson of Des Moines, Iowa, stood not too far from the main stage. It was her first March for Life.

She told Catholic News Service how five years ago she came close to getting an abortion but changed her mind while she was at a Planned Parenthood clinic.

Today her baby, Caden, is 4 years old and Dixson recently became executive director of Iowa Right to Life, so, she noted, it was time for her to make the march.

"Now I spend every day of my life to help young girls like me to make it possible for them to save their babies like I did mine," she said.

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Follow Asher on Twitter: @jlasher

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Youth at Mass for Life thanked for offering sign of hope for the future

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Mark Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- They came from near and far, and even from Down Under, united in prayer and in standing together for life at the Archdiocese of Washington's annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life, held Jan. 18 at the Capital One Arena in Washington.

The estimated crowd of 18,000 came from the Washington area and from across the country and were joined by young adults from Sydney on their way to World Youth Day in Panama.

The main celebrant at the Mass, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, entered and left the arena smiling and waving a blessing to the spirited crowd of teens and young adults, many of whom wore colorful, matching hats or sweatshirts along with their school uniforms.

They had come, the archbishop said, for a day of prayer for the legal protection of unborn children and to stand up and speak out for all those who are vulnerable in society, and also "to give thanks to God for the gift of life."

"Dear young people, thank you for the witness of your Catholic faith, both now in holy Mass, on the streets of Washington, and more importantly, when you return home to your families and neighborhoods," he said.

Archbishop Pierre read a message from Pope Francis, who said he was united in prayer with the thousands of young people who had come to Washington to join the March for Life. The pontiff in his message said the challenging task for each generation is "to uphold the inviolable dignity of human life." The pope's message said respect for the sacredness of every life is essential in building a just society, where every child, and every person, is welcomed as a brother and sister.

Fifteen other bishops concelebrated the Mass including the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston and Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher who was accompanying the Australian pilgrims. About 175 priests also concelebrated the Mass, assisted by about 30 permanent deacons.

The arena crowd also included an estimated 500 seminarians and 100 women religious.

Opening his homily at the Mass, Father Robert Boxie III, the parochial vicar at St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, said, "To see this arena filled with the Body of Christ, I'm looking out and seeing hope for the future of our church, and hope for the future of our country. It's an awesome and beautiful sight!"

Noting that the first reading at the Mass included the passage from Jeremiah 1:5, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you," the priest added, "The womb is the first place God encounters us. God encounters us in the womb and seeks to encounter us in each moment of our lives."

He said abortion is a symptom of a sickness in society and it shows "our failure to encounter one another and see the image of God and the face of Jesus Christ in our brothers and sisters. Simply put, it's our failure to love."

Echoing concerns raised by Pope Francis, the priest called on young people to counteract society's culture of indifference with a culture of encounter.

"Truly building a culture of life depends on how we encounter each other," he said, encouraging people not only to march for life, but to "stand up for every human life inside and outside the womb," including people in all stages of life, and also the poor, the neglected, immigrants and refugees. "All of these lives," he added, "are sacred and precious in the eyes of God."

Archbishop Fisher then greeted the young people at the arena with a friendly, "G'day!" and jokingly added that is the Australian way of saying, "The Lord be with you."

He said it was a great joy for him to accompany the young Aussies on the March for Life.

The Australian prelate said he hoped some of the young people in the arena would become priests or women religious or become "spouses and parents of the next generation of Christians' Whatever God's plan for you, know you are precious in his eyes," from the moment of conception until death, he said.

Sister Maria Juan, a Religious Sister of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, served as a master of ceremony for the youth rally, and at the end of Mass, she noted the bishops and the large numbers of priests, women religious and seminarians there, and the crowd gave them sustained applause. Some of the young people stood to indicate that they were discerning a vocation, and they too were applauded.

The sister noted that "in the church today, we are experiencing a lot of trials," but she added through the 2,000-year history of the church, "at those exact moments, God also raises up great saints to be light in the darkness."

She added, "Always remember it is Jesus Christ calling you to this, the church loves you and the world needs you."

The Mass's program encouraged young people to continue their advocacy for life after the march, by doing things like volunteering at a pregnancy center, starting or joining a pro-life club, educating peers on chastity and the church's teaching on life, being open and loving to teens in crisis, and praying for mothers, fathers and unborn children.

The Mass ended on a joyful note, as the congregation sang the song, "Your Grace is Enough," and some of the bishops and priests as they processed out, waved to young people in the different sections of the arena.

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Zimmermann is editor of the Catholic Standard, archdiocesan newspaper of Washington.

 

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Report says accurate number of children separated at border is unknown

IMAGE: CNS photo/Leah Millis, Reuters

By

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A report published Jan. 17 says the number of immigrant children separated from their parents at the border last year is unknown and the number given out by government officials at the end of 2018, saying that 2,737 children were separated, is not accurate. The number may be much higher.

The separations officially reported were those that took place between July and November 2018, when then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced what he called a zero tolerance policy, which meant that undocumented migrant parents caught crossing the border with their children would risk being separated from them. After some lawsuits were filed and much public outcry, the policy was reversed.

But the report from the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Health and Human Services, says children had been separated from parents or guardians long before then and the Department of Homeland Security which implemented the policy, even saw an uptick in separations in 2017. Some children may also have been separated after the policy officially ended.

Several Catholic bishops last year spoke out against the separations.

"Refugee children belong to their parents, not to the government or other institution. To steal children from their parents is a grave sin, immoral (and) evil," said San Antonio Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller on June 14 via Twitter. "Their lives have already been extremely difficult. Why do we (the U.S.) torture them even more, treating them as criminals?" he continued.

Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, also said via Twitter on May 31 that "separating immigrant parents and children as a supposed deterrent to immigration is a cruel and reprehensible policy. Children are not instruments of deterrence, they are children. A government that thinks any means is suitable to achieve an end cannot secure justice for anyone."

At the height of the separations in July 2018, Bishop Flores joined a group of top prelates who visited one of the detention centers where the minors were detained and the "respite center" for families who had recently crossed the border near the McAllen, Texas run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Catholic organizations such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Migration and Refugee Services and Catholic Charities USA helped reunite some of the families in the summer and fall of 2018. They were among the faith organizations that helped provide food, shelter and facilities to reunite the children with their parents once again.

The report says the real number of separations may exceed into the thousands, but it's hard to pin down accurate information because of a poor tracking system and poor communication among the agencies that were involved. The office took on the task of looking at the numbers of children separated, the inspector general report said, "given the potential impact of these actions on vulnerable children."

In October, the same office that issued the report said DHS, the department tasked with implementing the policy, "was not fully prepared to implement the administration's zero tolerance policy or to deal with some of its after-effects. Faced with resource limitations and other challenges, DHS regulated the number of asylum-seekers entering the country through ports of entry at the same time that it encouraged asylum-seekers to come to the ports. During zero tolerance, (U.S. Customs and Border Protection), also held alien children separated from their parents for extended periods in facilities intended solely for short-term detention."

The department "also struggled to identify, track, and reunify families separated under zero tolerance due to limitations with its information technology systems, including a lack of integration between systems," the Office of Inspector General said in October. "Finally, DHS provided inconsistent information to aliens who arrived with children during zero tolerance, which resulted in some parents not understanding that they would be separated from their children, and being unable to communicate with their children after separation."

 

 

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Pope says it's 'grave sin' to deny God has blessed other Christians

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Just as divisions in society grow when wealth is not shared, divisions within Christianity grow when the richness of gifts God has given to one Christian church or community are not recognized and shared, Pope Francis said.

"It is easy to forget the fundamental equality existing among us: that once we were all slaves to sin, that the Lord saved us in baptism and called us his children," the pope said Jan. 18 during an ecumenical evening prayer service at Rome's Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

At the beginning of the service, Pope Francis, Orthodox Metropolitan Gennadios of Italy and Malta and the Rev. Tim Macquiban, minister of Rome's Ponte Sant'Angelo Methodist Church, paused for a moment of prayer before the presumed tomb of St. Paul.

The prayer service marked the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The theme for 2019 -- "Justice, Only Justice, Shall You Pursue" -- was chosen by a group of Christians in Indonesia.

Members of the group, Pope Francis said, chose the passage from Deuteronomy because "they are deeply concerned that the economic growth of their country, driven by the mentality of competition, is leaving many in poverty and allowing a small few to become immensely wealthy."

And, he said, "that is not simply the case in Indonesia; it is a situation we see worldwide. When society is no longer based on the principle of solidarity and the common good, we witness the scandal of people living in utter destitution amid skyscrapers, grand hotels and luxurious shopping centers, symbols of incredible wealth."

"We have forgotten the wisdom of the Mosaic law: If wealth is not shared, society is divided," the pope said.

In an analogous way, he said, Christians also tend to forget that they are brothers and sisters, equally saved through baptism.

"It is easy to think that the spiritual grace granted us is our property, something to which we are due, our property," the pope said. Or one group of Christians can be so focused on the gifts they have received from God that they are blind to the gifts God has given others.

"It is a grave sin," he said, "to belittle or despise the gifts that the Lord has given our brothers and sisters, and to think that God somehow holds them in less esteem."

God's grace, the pope said, must never "become a source of pride, injustice and division."

The path to Christian unity, the oneness that Jesus prayed his disciples would have, begins with humbly recognizing that "the blessings we have received are not ours by right, but have come to us as a gift; they were given to be shared with others," he said.

Connected with that, he said, is an acknowledgment of "the value of the grace granted to other Christian communities."

"A Christian people renewed and enriched by this exchange of gifts will be a people capable of journeying firmly and confidently on the path that leads to unity," the pope said.

 

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'So small a thing' can be a big deal, bishop says at march vigil's end

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond, Virginia, quoted from Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien to make a pro-life point during his homily at the Jan. 18 Mass that closed the Vigil for Life.

"In J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings,' there is a passage where Boromir, a lord of Gondor, is tempted by the Ring of Power. He holds it up, while being tempted to use its power to defend his people, and he says: 'The ring! Is it not a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and doubt for so small a thing? So small a thing!'"

But those small things can be big deals, Bishop Knestout said at the Mass, celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

He pointed to three small things: the splitting of the atom, the invention of the microchip, and the development of the birth control pill.

With the first, "unbelievable destructive power is unleashed when that stability and union of the atom is broken," Bishop Knestout said. "When these are in their right relationship, stability and peace are the result." When they are not, he added, the result can be destruction "almost beyond our imagination."

Because of the microchip's ubiquitousness, "communication and communicator are divided," he said. "Before this technology, both communicator and communication were present at the same time, and you must deal with the person in front of you -- not some anonymous, abstract entity or idea that can be attacked or discarded easily."

With the pill, Bishop Knestout said, "life and love, husband and wife are divided. Union and communion with one another and with God is broken. From this is unleashed the destruction of the family, right relationships between human beings. What results are broken families, societies and cultures."

Bishop Knestout remarked on how Washington, site of the March for Life, has also been the site of division.

"We celebrate this Mass for Life just a few months after the 50th anniversary of the promulgation of 'Humanae Vitae,'" which proscribed the use of artificial contraception, he said.

"We celebrate this Mass for Life in the city of Washington, the nation's capital, where the pill was approved by the FDC in 1960, where the American 'Humanae Vitae' crisis was centered in 1968, where the Supreme Court decided that abortion was a constitutionally protected right in 1973, and where the sexual abuse and church leadership crisis has been centered in 2018," Bishop Knestout added.

"It is a strange fate that these have all occurred here, but it has a lesson for us. These secular and ecclesial crises can be linked together through a small but challenging teaching."

Many of the things St. Paul VI predicted "if society came to accept the idea that the unitive and procreative ends of marriage could be separated" have come to pass, Bishop Knestout said.

The bishop included among them "the general lowering of morals in society," "the objectification and attacks on the dignity of women," "widespread pornography, and addiction to it," and "coercion by the state in matters of reproduction and family life."

"Promiscuity, abortion, in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, homosexual activity, same-sex marriage, partial-birth abortion, sex-selection abortions, genetic abnormality abortion -- all flow from this division," he said.

The "remedy" Bishop Knestout suggested: "We must return to the Gospel, and the teachings of Christ. ... The remedy is embracing the face of God in each person and embracing what the church teaches about human life. When we do that, we need not fear the dark of night, or the discord of nations."

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison

 

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'Deception' guided court cases that legalized abortion, archbishop says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The two Supreme Court cases that legalized abortion virtually on demand in the United States were based on "deception," said Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas.

"The late Norma McCorvey, Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade, lied about being gang-raped," said Archbishop Naumann, new chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities. "After her pro-life conversion, Norma acknowledged that she was deceived by her attorneys about the reality of abortion. For the last 20 years of her life, Norma McCorvey labored tirelessly to overturn Roe v. Wade."

In his homily at the Jan. 17 March for Life vigil Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, Archbishop Naumann said, "The late Sandra Cano, the Jane Doe of the Doe v. Bolton decision, never wanted an abortion."

He added, "Her lawyers, whom she had engaged to assist with regaining the custody of her children, used her difficult circumstances to advance their own ideological goal to legalize abortion. She actually fled the state of Georgia, when she feared that her lawyers and family members intended to pressure her to actually have an abortion."

Archbishop Naumann also touted another early figure in the abortion debate, Dr. Bernard Nathanson.

"Nathanson, one of the founders of NARAL and himself an abortionist, became pro-life not because of theology or any religious sentiment, but from his own study of the scientific advancements in embryology and fetology," he said. "While it is true that Dr. Nathanson eventually became Catholic, it was long after he had become a pro-life advocate because of science."

Archbishop Naumann criticized one of the consequences of legal abortion.

"Protecting the life of the unborn children is the pre-eminent human rights issue of our time, not only because of the sheer magnitude of the numbers, but because abortion attacks the sanctuary of life, the family. Abortion advocates pit the welfare of the mother against the life of her child," he said.

"Every abortion not only destroys the life of an innocent child, but it wounds and scars mothers and fathers who must live with the harsh reality that they hired someone to destroy their daughter or son. In reality, the welfare of parents and their child are always intimately linked."

Archbishop Naumann also took note of the legal and political landscape surrounding abortion.

"We assemble in 2019 with some new hope that the recent changes in the membership of the Supreme Court may result in a re-examination and an admission by the court of its tragic error 46 years ago," he said, referring to the addition of Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. "We pray that state legislatures and the people of this country will again have the ability to protect the lives of unborn children."

He added, "At the same time, we are sobered by the ferocity and the extremism of the proponents of legalized abortion as evidenced in the recent confirmation process to fill a vacancy on the U. S. Supreme Court. Recently, two members of the Senate Judiciary Committee questioned the suitability of a judicial nominee because of his membership in an 'extremist organization'" -- and here he paused to make a face, as if he couldn't believe what he was about to say next -- "the Knights of Columbus."

The Mass, which brought an estimated 10,000 people into the basilica's Great Upper Church, was not as filled with pomp and grandeur. The entrance procession, for instance, lasted 17 minutes -- less than half the 35 minutes recorded in some past years.

Also, after the prayers the faithful, all at Mass read aloud a "Prayer for Healing Victims of Abuse," which read in part, "Gentle Jesus, shepherd of peace, join to your own suffering the pain of all who have been hurt in body mind, and spirit by those who betrayed the trust placed in them. Hear our cries as we agonize over the harm done to our brothers and sisters."

Archbishop Naumann also mentioned the abuse crisis in his homily.

"For all Catholics, the last several months have been profoundly difficult. We've been devastated by the scandal of sexual misconduct by clergy and of past instances of the failure of bishops to respond with compassion to victims of abuse and to protect adequately the members of their flock," he said.

"The abuse of children or minors upends the pro-life ethic because it is a grave injustice and an egregious offense against the dignity of the human person," he said. "Moreover, the failure to respond effectively to the abuse crisis undermines every other ministry in the church."

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Follow Mark on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. 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 cns@catholicnews.com.

Take charge of your roots, culture, pope tells indigenous youths

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis said that in order to face the challenges ahead, young indigenous men and women must protect and never forget their roots and their cultures.

In a video message sent to the World Meeting of Indigenous Youth in Soloy, Panama, Jan. 18, the pope urged the young people to "be grateful for the history of their people," which will help them "go forward full of hope."

"Return to your culture of origins," he said. "Take charge of your roots, because from your roots comes the strength to make things grow, flourish and bear fruit."

According to a press release, over 2,000 indigenous young people were expected to attend the Jan. 17-21 meeting to prepare for World Youth Day in Panama.

The pope, who will arrive in the country Jan. 23, said he looked forward to meeting them at WYD and said their presence would be a way "of showing the indigenous face of our church" as well as being a confirmation of the church's "commitment to protect our common home."

The gathering of young indigenous men and women, he added, will "stimulate the search for answers from an evangelical perspective to the many scandalous situations in the world such as the marginalization, exclusion and impoverishment that condemn millions of young people, especially youths from the original peoples."

"Take charge of your cultures, take charge of your roots!" Pope Francis exclaimed. "A poet once said that 'everything that blooms from a tree comes from that which is underground,' the roots. But roots that grow toward the future, projected toward the future. This is your challenge today."

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. 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 cns@catholicnews.com.

“They Shall Not Grow Old”: Comrades Through Time

An intimate and personal WWI documentary from "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson.

Without a voice at home, Nicaraguans ask Washington-based OAS for help

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rhina Guidos

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- For a few hours, Gio Gomez left the warmth of the Florida sun and headed north toward an arctic blast in Washington. She protected herself from the winter breeze while wrapped in a yellow and white Vatican flag outside the building of the Organization of American States, the place where diplomats and an array of officials from the three American continents Jan. 11 were weighing "the situation in Nicaragua."

She made the trek from her home in the Miami-Dade area to Washington, she told Catholic News Service, to show support for the Catholic clergy in the Central American nation of Nicaragua.

Her native country has, for almost a year, been undergoing a crisis involving a government accused by detractors, like Gomez, of killing and injuring its citizens, violating their human rights (as well as their right to free and fair elections), threatening independent media and usurping power.

In the middle of it all, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, from its bishops to the laity, has been in the thick of the drama. The country's bishops attempted to dialogue with the government after massive protests and unrest erupted in April 2018 when Ortega administration officials announced a plan to reduce pensions as a cost-cutting measure while increasing employee contributions to the social security system.

Though the government rescinded the proposal, the violent reactions toward it yielded hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries after police and pro-government forces clashed with dissenting civilians.

The country, which had showed modest but stable economic growth, also plummeted financially, resulting in even more public demonstrations of discontent. Those demonstrations migrated beyond the borders of Nicaragua. They regularly occupy space on Twitter via the hashtag #SOSNicaragua and expanded abroad in places like Washington and Florida, where Nicaraguan expats who feel they cannot be heard at home, are urging multilateral organizations such as the OAS to act against the government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, whom they largely blame for the crisis.

"Gentlemen, ladies, don't be indifferent, they're killing people," Gomez shouted in Spanish. She was with about 200 other Nicaraguan immigrants outside the OAS building in Washington, as the regional forum met to weigh what action, if any, to take.

Luis Almagro, secretary-general of the Washington-based OAS, an organization of 35 independent states from North, Central and South America, called for the urgent session in January to address the allegations against Nicaragua, an OAS member state.

During that meeting, Paulo Abrao, executive secretary for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH for its Spanish acronym), said the organization had determined that 325 Nicaraguans had died and at least 2,000 had been injured since anti-government demonstrations began in April 2018.

At least one of those deaths included the killing of a student from a Jesuit high school in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. Alvaro Conrado Davila, 15, a student at the Loyola Institute, died April 20, 2018, after being hit in the throat by a rubber bullet.  

But Nicaragua Foreign Minister Denis Ronaldo Moncada Colindres disputed the accusations against his government. In a scene reminiscent of the Cold War, he accused the OAS secretary-general during the meeting of being a pawn of the U.S., reminded representatives of member states gathered in the room of "Yankee troops" marching into other Latin American countries and of past interventionism in the region, and said if illegal action was taken against Nicaragua, they could be next.  

"The government of Nicaragua rejects and condemns this convocation," he said, accusing Almagro of supporting terrorist groups that advocate overthrowing legitimate governments such as the one run by Ortega and Murillo.

But even the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan government is in question. The Ortega administration, which has ruled the country for more than a decade, has been accused of using the country's judicial system to quash any significant political opposition groups. The administration exerts control over all branches of government.

Moncada Colindres classified those opposing Ortega as terrorists or as paid actors of the "ultra-right" of the United States, posing as pacifist workers for nongovernmental organizations, he said, but intent on attempting a coup. He used the example of a priest in Nicaragua threatening violence against local police. Media reports said the priest was trying to calm the situation by marching through the streets with the Eucharist.

Though the relationship between the government and a church on the side of the Nicaraguan people seems tense at best, it wasn't always so.

In a Jan. 3 telephone interview with CNS from Managua, Catholic journalist Israel Gonzalez Espinoza explained that in the past Catholic authorities had worked with the Ortega government, including in an effort that resulted in 2006 with getting a national law approved that banned abortion. The relationship between the church hierarchy and government was "cordial," Gonzalez said, and differences were discussed privately.

In 2014, the country's bishops met with Ortega and presented him with a document, an "X-ray," of the country's problems, Gonzalez said, including the need to guarantee free and fair elections in 2016. They also pointed out in the document the need to stop "political manipulation of religious symbols for political interest" and the "appropriation of terminology and values of the Catholic religion" incorporated into partisan slogans.

"They never received a response" from the administration, said Gonzalez, who covers the Catholic Church for the Spanish-language online site Religion Digital.

By the time the Nicaraguan bishops met with the Ortega administration last year to try broker peace and open a dialogue following the protests, government officials had dug in their heels.

"They just wanted to talk about the economic situation, that was their 'war horse,' saying that at the international level, Nicaragua was an economically stable country" and the government shouldn't be questioned, Gonzalez said.

But since then, the economy contracted. The Inter Press Service news agency reported in September that "more than $900 million have fled the financial system" in Nicaragua since the conflict started. The economic instability seemed to fuel public shows of discontent.

Catholic churches have served as places of refuge during some of the clashes, especially since young Nicaraguans, many of them Catholic, have been involved in some of the demonstrations.

Prelates such as Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez have come under fire and even physical attack by pro-government groups for speaking out against the Ortega administration. That's what prompted Nicaraguans abroad, such as Gio Gomez, to seek help abroad, not just for other Nicaraguans, but also the Catholic Church as an institution in Nicaragua.

"Their rights are under attack," said Gomez, waving a blue and white Nicaraguan flag as OAS members left the building. Though no action was taken against the Ortega administration Jan. 11, the OAS is considering various upcoming diplomatic options.

Though OAS representatives from Venezuela and Bolivia backed Nicaragua, many seemed to side with Secretary-General Almagro, who offered strong rebuke during the meeting saying that the "grave" situation in Nicaragua prompted a deeper look at the country because democracy cannot exist amid repression and violation of human rights.

When a government openly violates basic human rights, he said, "it's obvious that it has forgotten that sovereignty is rooted in the people."

Referencing the OAS meeting, Nicaragua's Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said to online news site Confidencial in early January that "if an observation has merit, I think it has to be evaluated well, and those things that need to be changed, well, they need to change, for benefit of the country."

 

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