Why I wear the habit – a nun’s reflection on religious life

Rome, Italy, Dec 26, 2016 / 10:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- As Pope Francis’ year dedicated to consecrated life concluded at the start of this year, one nun shared her thoughts on the how her religious garb serves as a “visible sign” that God exists and loves every person. Though the official Year for Consecrated Life concluded earlier this year, it’s actually “the beginning of helping people get reacquainted with religious life,” said Sr. Mary Christa of the Sisters of Mercy of Alma. She said that while there are those who have a general idea about religious sisters, there’s still a degree of uncertainty on the part of many about what religious life looks like. Right now, Sr. Mary Christa added, there’s “confusion”  – over questions such as why some sisters wear habits and some don’t – and her hope is that this year marks the start of “a fruitful understanding of religious life in the Church in its most authentic, visible witness.” The Year for Consecrated Life, which began Nov. 30, 2014, concluded Feb. 2, 2016 on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus. Sr. Mary Christa, who also runs U.S. bishops’ visitor’s office in Rome with several other Sisters of Mercy, called the habit of a religious sister an important part of being a witness. It’s a sign of the love of God and that this life is not all there is. “The religious habit should say a number of things, both to the sister herself, and to those who see her,” she said, recounting how she is often approached by strangers asking for prayers, who automatically trust her on account of her appearance. “The habit is a visible sign of the love of God,” she said. “But it’s also, I have found, a great responsibility and a reminder to me: the responsibility to be what I show that I am.” “It’s a sign of the love of God and that this life is not all there is: that God exists and loves them,” she said. One of the distinguishing aspects of their habit – a dark veil and a simple, pale blue frock in the summer, and a darker color for the winter – is a simple black cross, overlaid by a smaller white cross, which is worn around the neck. “The black of the cross represents the misery of mankind that we find in the world, and the white represents God’s mercy, which we are called to bring into the world as Sisters of Mercy,” explained Sr. Mary Michaela, who works at the visitor’s office. “There is a long tradition in religious life of wearing a habit as a visible sign that we are consecrated to God and to the service of the Church in a special way,” she said. “It’s also part of poverty,” she added. “Our habit is simple, so we don’t buy a big wardrobe.” Living in Rome, Sr. Mary Michaela noted how she too is approached by people asking for prayers on account of her habit. “When they see the habit, they realize that there is something particular about our life,” she said. “They recognize that we represent, in some way, God’s presence. We remind people of God’s presence here in the world.” First established in Ireland in 1831 by venerable Catherine McAuley, the Sisters of Mercy centered their work on education, catechesis, healthcare. Spreading to the United States, the order was re-founded in 1973 in Alma, Michigan, where its motherhouse is currently located. In addition to the three vows taken by all religious sisters, the Sisters of Mercy take a fourth vow of service to the poor, sick, and ignorant. In Rome, the Sisters of Mercy offer orientation to U.S. Pilgrims – obtaining tickets for papal events, answering their questions about the city, and helping them with the pilgrimage aspect of their visit. “This is one of the apostolic works that we do as a community,” said Sr. Regina Marie, speaking on her work at the visitor’s office. Pilgrims “can come here and learn about the faith,” she said. “We will often have a priest that will come at a certain time for a half hour and give catechesis for anyone who wants to. We have catechetical materials out for the pilgrims, (or) even just a place for them to sit down for a few minutes.” “Our charism is the mercy of God,” she said. “Our apostolates are usually focused around the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, which can manifest themselves in many ways.”   Sr. Anna Marie, another sister at the office, adds that “the consecrated life is a sign of his presence on earth.” “We live our vows so that when people see us, they think of God, and they think of Jesus, and they think of the Church. That’s a tremendous privilege.” On how people will often ask her about her life as a religious, Sr. Anna Marie said she is excited to answer their questions. “It’s a gift not only for me, but a gift for the whole Church and for the world,” she said.  This article was originally published Feb. 2, 2016. Read more

Be thankful – Pope Francis’ message at end of Year for Consecrated Life

Vatican City, Feb 2, 2016 / 11:44 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis presided over Mass on Tuesday for the conclusion of the Year for Consecrated Life, reminding religious men and women of their call to be “custodians of wonder” as they promote a culture of encounter with Christ. “All forms of consecrated life, each according to its own characteristic, are called to be in permanent states of mission,” the Pope said in his Feb. 2 homily at St. Peter’s Basilica for the feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The Roman Pontiff explained how the grace of vocation is borne out of a life-changing encounter with Christ, who “is the novelty that makes all things new.” Those who experience this encounter, he said, become witnesses who reach out to others and promote a culture of encounter, rather than remaining closed in on themselves.   The Pope also emphasized the importance of gratitude on the part of consecrated men and women. “This is a word that can summarize all that we have seen during this Year for Consecrated Life: gratitude for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which always enlivens the Church through the different charisms.” The Year for Consecrated Life began Nov. 30, 2015, and concludes Feb. 2.   Pope Francis reflected on the day’s Gospel reading, which recounts Christ’s presentation at the Jewish Temple by Mary and Joseph. “This child has brought to us God’s mercy and tenderness: Jesus is the face of the Father’s Mercy,” he said. This is the “icon” offered at the conclusion of the Year for Consecrated life, which in turn flows like a river into “the sea of mercy, into this immense mystery of love, which is being experienced with the extraordinary Jubilee.” Reflecting on the encounter with the prophets Simeon and Anna told in the Gospel reading, the Pope said the child Jesus “is presented as the perennial surprise of God.”   Through him, he added, we encounter “the past, made of memory and promise, and the future, full of hope.” “We can see in this the beginning of the consecrated life,” the Pope said: consecrated persons are, “above all, called to be men and women of encounter.” Pope Francis reflected on the day’s epistle, from the letter to the Hebrews, which shows how Christ “did not hesitate to share in our human condition.” In turn, consecrated men and women “are called to be concrete and prophetic signs of this closeness to God,” sharing in the fragility, sin, and woundedness of men and women today. Pope Francis reflected on Mary and Joseph being amazed at the words of Simeon, and how they protect the sense of wonder of this encounter. Likewise, “as Christians and consecrated men women, we are custodians of wonder,” the Pope said. This wonder calls for constant renewal, the Roman Pontiff stressed, reminding consecrated persons that the charisms of their founders are not meant to be “sealed in a bottle” as though they were museum pieces. Rather, they were “moved by the Spirit, and not afraid to get their hands dirty with daily life, the problems of the people,” as they courageously went to the “geographic and existential peripheries.” The founders of religious orders were not deterred by obstacles or misunderstandings from others, nor did they attempt to “domesticate the grace of the Gospel.” Instead, they maintained a “healthy concern for the Lord” and a desire to bring him to others. “We too are called to make prophetic and courageous choices,” he said. Pope Francis reflected on the day’s feast as an opportunity to learn how to live out our gratitude for the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist, and for the grace of the consecrated vocation. “How beautiful is it when we encounter the happy face of consecrated persons, perhaps already advanced in years like Simeon or Anna, content and full of gratitude for their vocation,” the Pope said. He concluded: “May the Lord Jesus, through the maternal intercession of Mary, grow in us, and increase in each of us the desire for encounter, the protection of wonder, and the joy of gratitude.” In this way, others may be “attracted to his light, and be able to encounter the Father’s mercy.” Read more

There’s no alternative: help Israel and Palestine seek peace, archbishop tells UN

New York City, N.Y., Feb 2, 2016 / 06:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Peace was the focus of the Holy See’s representative in a recent speech to the United Nations, where he renewed calls to support negotiations between Israel and Palestine and between the warring factions in Syria. “Certain elements among both peoples have suffered too long from the misguided view that force will resolve their differences. Only sustained negotiations, entered into in good faith, will resolve their differences and bring peace to the peoples of Israel and Palestine,” Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the apostolic nuncio heading the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the U.N., said Jan. 26. Speaking on behalf of the Holy See, he addressed the Security Council’s open debate on the situation in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying it has stalled. “With the lack of substantive negotiations taking place, acts of violence continue to spiral, bringing many to doubt seriously the continued validity of the Oslo Accords,” he said, referring to the 1993 agreement between Palestinian and Israeli leaders. Archbishop Auza said the Holy See believes the Israeli-Palestinian peace process can advance only if it is directly negotiated between the two parties, with strong international support. “This certainly requires courageous decisions from both parties and demands fair mutual concessions. But there is no alternative, if both Israel and Palestine are to enjoy security, prosperity and peaceful co-existence, side by side with internationally recognized borders.” The archbishop cited Pope Francis’ Jan. 11 remarks to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See. There, the Pope voiced hope that the New Year “can heal the deep wounds dividing Israelis and Palestinians, and enable the peaceful coexistence of two peoples who – of this I am sure – in the depth of their hearts ask only for peace.” The nuncio commented: “Acts of violence and inflammatory rhetoric must be set aside in favor of the voices of dialogue to give both peoples that peace for which their hearts long.” The comprehensive agreement between the Holy See and the State of Palestine went into force Jan. 2. The agreement addresses the activity of the Church in Palestine, the archbishop explained. “In the complex reality of the Middle East, where, in some countries, Christians have suffered persecution, the Holy See hopes that the agreement may serve as an example of dialogue and cooperation, in particular for other Arab and Muslim majority countries.” Archbishop Auza also discussed the Syrian civil war, which has lasted almost five years. The fighting includes the Syrian government and various rebel factions, including the Free Syrian Army, Kurdish separatists, the Islamic State group, and al-Nusra Front. Over 250,000 people have died in the conflict, with more than 11 million people displaced from their homes. The archbishop noted that the conflict had attracted violent actors from abroad. “More than being a conflict between Syrians, foreign fighters coming from all over the globe continue to commit unspeakable acts of horror against the civilian population in Syria and in parts of Iraq,” he said. “The influence of these foreign elements has led to sectarian violence and persecutions of religious and ethnic minorities.” According to Archbishop Auza, Pope Francis is convinced that “only common and agreed political action can stem the spread of extremism and fundamentalism” that spawn terrorist acts in Syria, Libya, and other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Rather than repeating the “horrendous acts of violence” against the Syrian people, the archbishop repeated an appeal to stop the flow of arms into the region. He urged strengthened humanitarian action to help refugees. He said refugee aid should help them remain in or near their home country, providing adequate food, medical supplies, water, electricity, and access to education.   Archbishop Auza said his delegation backed Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic” and for a political settlement to the Syrian conflict. The archbishop praised the Syrian peace talks that have now begun in Geneva. “In spite of the many strong differences still to be found among the parties to the talks, the Holy See believes that these negotiations are the best chance the International Community has to bring a stable and lasting peace to Syria and to the region,” he said. He also noted the upcoming humanitarian conference to be held in London Feb. 4. He said the Holy See hopes the conference will ease the suffering of people in the region and contribute to settling the Syrian conflict. Read more

Pope stresses balance of work, family in new interview with Chinese paper

Vatican City, Feb 2, 2016 / 05:59 am (CNA/EWTN News).- As the Chinese New Year approaches, Pope Francis has granted an interview to Hong Kong’s Asia Times in which he touches on an array of topics including the country’s rapid rise to power and a realistic balance of work and family life. With many families facing division and even separation due to the heavy emphasis that is often place on work-efficiency in China, Pope Francis has suggested “a healthy realism” regarding one’s responsibilities at work and in the home as a remedy. “Reality must be accepted from wherever it comes,” he said in the interview, published Feb. 2. “Reality must be accepted for what it is. Be realistic. This is our reality.” First, one has to accept reality for what it is, he said, adding that even if it’s ideal, “if I don’t come to terms with it, I won’t be able to do anything.” Then the second step, he said, “is to work to improve reality and to change its direction.” Pope Francis spoke with Asia Times columnist and senior researcher at China’s Renmin University Francesco Sisci Jan. 28 at the Vatican. In the course of the lengthy interview, the Pope sent special greetings to China’s president, Xi Jinping, as well as all the Chinese people in honor of their new year, which will be celebrated Feb. 8. In addition to expressing his esteem and respect for the Chinese people and their culture, Francis also touched on sensitive topics such as China’s rapid growth, the country’s One Child policy, which has recently been amended allowing families to have two children, as well as challenged related to the overbearing emphasis that is often placed on work.Below is the full text of Pope Francis’ interview with Asia Times:Sisci: What is China for you? How did you imagine China to be as a young man, given that China, for Argentina, is not the East but the far West? What does Matteo Ricci mean to you?Pope Francis: For me, China has always been a reference point of greatness. A great country. But more than a country, a great culture, with an inexhaustible wisdom. For me, as a boy, whenever I read anything about China, it had the capacity to inspire my admiration. I have admiration for China. Later I looked into Matteo Ricci’s life and I saw how this man felt the same thing in the exact way I did, admiration, and how he was able to enter into dialogue with this great culture, with this age-old wisdom. He was able to “encounter” it. When I was young, and China was spoken of, we thought of the Great Wall. The rest was not known in my homeland. But as I looked more and more into the matter, I had an experience of encounter which was very different, in time and manner, to that experienced by Ricci. Yet I came across something I had not expected. Ricci’s experience teaches us that it is necessary to enter into dialogue with China, because it is an accumulation of wisdom and history. It is a land blessed with many things. And the Catholic Church, one of whose duties is to respect all civilizations, before this civilization, I would say, has the duty to respect it with a capital “R.” The Church has great potential to receive culture. The other day I had the opportunity to see the paintings of another great Jesuit, Giuseppe Castiglione – who also had the Jesuit virus (laughs). Castiglione knew how to express beauty, the experience of openness in dialogue: receiving from others and giving of one’s self on a wavelength that is “civilized” of civilizations. When I say “civilized,” I do not mean only “educated” civilizations, but also civilizations that encounter one another. Also, I don’t know whether it is true but they say that Marco Polo was the one who brought pasta noodles to Italy (laughs). So it was the Chinese who invented them. I don’t know if this is true. But I say this in passing. This is the impression I have, great respect. And more than this, when I crossed China for the first time, I was told in the aircraft: “within ten minutes we will enter Chinese airspace, and send your greeting.” I confess that I felt very emotional, something that does not usually happen to me. I was moved to be flying over this great richness of culture and wisdom.Sisci: China, for the first time in its thousands of years of history, is emerging from its own environment and opening to the world, creating unprecedented challenges for itself and for the world. You have spoken of a third world war that is furtively advancing: what challenges does this present in the quest for peace?Pope Francis: Being afraid is never a good counselor. Fear is not a good counselor. If a father and a mother are fearful when they have an adolescent son, they will not know how to deal with him well. In other words, we must not fear challenges of any kind, since everyone, male and female, has within them the capacity to find ways of co-existing, of respect and mutual admiration. And it is obvious that so much culture and so much wisdom, and in addition, so much technical knowledge – we have only to think of age-old medicinal techniques – cannot remain enclosed within a country; they tend to expand, to spread, to communicate. Man tends to communicate, a civilization tends to communicate. It is evident that when communication happens in an aggressive tone to defend oneself, then wars result. But I would not be fearful. It is a great challenge to keep the balance of peace. Here we have Grandmother Europe, as I said in Strasbourg. It appears that she is no longer Mother Europe. I hope she will be able to reclaim that role again. And she receives from this age-old country an increasingly rich contribution. And so it is necessary to accept the challenge and to run the risk of balancing this exchange for peace. The Western world, the Eastern world and China all have the capacity to maintain the balance of peace and the strength to do so. We must find the way, always through dialogue; there is no other way. (He opens his arms as if extending an embrace.) Encounter is achieved through dialogue. The true balance of peace is realized through dialogue. Dialogue does not mean that we end up with a compromise, half the cake for you and the other half for me. This is what happened in Yalta and we saw the results. No, dialogue means: look, we have got to this point, I may or may not agree, but let us walk together; this is what it means to build. And the cake stays whole, walking together. The cake belongs to everyone, it is humanity, culture. Carving up the cake, as in Yalta, means dividing humanity and culture into small pieces. And culture and humanity cannot be carved into small pieces. When I speak about this large cake I mean it in a positive sense. Everyone has an influence to bear on the common good of all. (The Pope smiles and asks: “I don’t know if the example of the cake is clear for the Chinese?” I nod: “I think so.”)Sisci: China has experienced over the last few decades tragedies without comparison. Since 1980 the Chinese have sacrificed that which has always been most dear to them, their children. For the Chinese these are very serious wounds. Among other things, this has left enormous emptiness in their consciences and somehow an extremely deep need to be reconciled with themselves and to forgive themselves. In the Year of Mercy what message can you offer the Chinese people?Pope Francis: The aging of a population and of humanity is happening in many places. Here in Italy the birth rate is almost below zero, and in Spain too, more or less. The situation in France, with its policy of assistance to families, is improving. And it is obvious that populations age. They age and they do not have children. In Africa, for example, it was a pleasure to see children in the streets. Here in Rome, if you walk around, you will see very few children. Perhaps behind this there is the fear you are alluding to, the mistaken perception, not that we will simply fall behind, but that we will fall into misery, so therefore, let’s not have children. There are other societies that have opted for the contrary. For example, during my trip to Albania, I was astonished to discover that the average age of the population is approximately 40 years. There exist young countries; I think Bosnia and Herzegovina is the same. Countries that have suffered and opt for youth. Then there is the problem of work. Something that China does not have, because it has the capacity to offer work both in the countryside and in the city. And it is true, the problem for China of not having children must be very painful; because the pyramid is then inverted and a child has to bear the burden of his father, mother, grandfather and grandmother. And this is exhausting, demanding, disorientating. It is not the natural way. I understand that China has opened up possibilities on this front.Sisci: How should these challenges of families in China be faced, given that they find themselves in a process of profound change and no longer correspond to the traditional Chinese model of the family?Pope Francis: Taking up the theme, in the Year of Mercy, what message can I give to the Chinese people? The history of a people is always a path. A people at times walks more quickly, at times more slowly, at times it pauses, at times it makes a mistake and goes backwards a little, or takes the wrong path and has to retrace its steps to follow the right way. But when a people moves forward, this does not worry me because it means they are making history. And I believe that the Chinese people are moving forward and this is their greatness. It walks, like all populations, through lights and shadows. Looking at this past – and perhaps the fact of not having children creates a complex – it is healthy to take responsibility for one’s own path. Well, we have taken this route, something here did not work at all, so now other possibilities are opened up. Other issues come into play: the selfishness of some of the wealthy sectors who prefer not to have children, and so forth. They have to take responsibility for their own path. And I would go further: do not be bitter, but be at peace with your own path, even if you have made mistakes. I cannot say my history was bad, that I hate my history. (The Pope gives me a penetrating look.) No, every people must be reconciled with its history as its own path, with its successes and its mistakes. And this reconciliation with one’s own history brings much maturity, much growth. Here I would use the word mentioned in the question: mercy. It is healthy for a person to have mercy towards himself, not to be sadistic or masochistic. That is wrong. And I would say the same for a people: it is healthy for a population to be merciful towards itself. And this nobility of soul … I don’t know whether or not to use the word forgiveness, I don’t know. But to accept that this was my path, to smile, and to keep going. If one gets tired and stops, one can become bitter and corrupt. And so, when one takes responsibility for one’s own path, accepting it for what it was, this allows one’s historical and cultural richness to emerge, even in difficult moments. And how can it be allowed to emerge? Here we return to the first question: in dialogue with today’s world. To dialogue does not mean that I surrender myself, because at times there is the danger, in the dialogue between different countries, of hidden agendas, namely, cultural colonizations. It is necessary to recognize the greatness of the Chinese people, who have always maintained their culture. And their culture – I am not speaking about ideologies that there may have been in the past – their culture was not imposed.Sisci: The country’s economic growth proceeded at an overwhelming pace but this has also brought with it human and environmental disasters which Beijing is striving to confront and resolve. At the same time, the pursuit of work efficiency is burdening families with new costs: sometimes children and parents are separated due to the demands of work. What message can you give them?Pope Francis: I feel rather like a “mother-in-law” giving advice on what should be done (laughs). I would suggest a healthy realism; reality must be accepted from wherever it comes. This is our reality; as in football, the goalkeeper must catch the ball from wherever it comes. Reality must be accepted for what it is. Be realistic. This is our reality. First, I must be reconciled with reality. I don’t like it, I am against it, it makes me suffer, but if I don’t come to terms with it, I won’t be able to do anything. The second step is to work to improve reality and to change its direction. Now, you see that these are simple suggestions, somewhat commonplace. But to be like an ostrich, that hides its head in the sand so as not to see reality, nor accept it, is no solution. Well then, let us discuss, let us keep searching, let us continue walking, always on the path, on the move. The water of a river is pure because it flows ahead; still water becomes stagnant. It is necessary to accept reality as it is, without disguising it, without refining it, and to find ways of improving it. Well, here is something that is very important. If this happens to a company which has worked for twenty years and there is a business crisis, then there are few avenues of creativity to improve it. On the contrary, when it happens in an age-old country, with its age-old history, its age-old wisdom, its age-old creativity, then tension is created between the present problem and this past of ancient richness. And this tension brings fruitfulness as it looks to the future. I believe that the great richness of China today lies in looking to the future from a present that is sustained by the memory of its cultural past. Living in tension, not in anguish, and the tension is between its very rich past and the challenge of the present which has to be carried forth into the future; that is, the story doesn’t end here.Sisci: On the occasion of the upcoming Chinese New Year of the Monkey, would you like to send a greeting to the Chinese people, to the Authorities and to President Xi Jinping? Pope Francis: On the eve of the New Year, I wish to convey my best wishes and greetings to President Xi Jinping and to all the Chinese people. And I wish to express my hope that they never lose their historical awareness of being a great people, with a great history of wisdom, and that they have much to offer to the world. The world looks to this great wisdom of yours. In this New Year, with this awareness, may you continue to go forward in order to help and cooperate with everyone in caring for our common home and our common peoples. Thank you! Read more

Who else is facing off during the Super Bowl? Catholic Charities

Denver, Colo., Feb 2, 2016 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Whether fans are rooting for the Denver Broncos or the Carolina Panthers in the upcoming NFL Super Bowl 50, Catholic Charities of Denver, Colorado and Charlotte, South Carolina are uniting to host a friendly Charity Bowl Challenge that any football fan can cheer for. Executive directors from both cities announced the wager last week, betting that the online fundraising challenge could bring their charities $50,000 by the end of the Feb. 7 game. “It’s a worthy cause that will have a major impact on the lives of the poor and needy in each of our communities,” said Catholic Charities of Charlotte CEO Gerry Carter in a recent press release. “All of our team’s fans and Catholic Charities in the Carolinas look forward to this challenge, and the inevitable victory that will be ours,” Carter said. The Charity Bowl is an online fundraiser that started at midnight on January 31. All donations made between then and the end of the Super Bowl game will be counted towards the $50,000 goal. The outcome of the Charity Bowl will be determined by the amount of money raised, not by the score of the football game. The face-off can be tracked online at www.CharityBowl50.org or through social media with the hashtag #CharityBowl50. More than bragging rights are at stake for each of the charities. The losing charity’s CEO will dress in the opposing team’s colors, sending congratulatory messages to the winning team. The victors will also hold a celebration where the winning charity’s CEO will endure a cold sports drink dump. “Through Charity Bowl 50, Denver football fans have a real opportunity to show they have the best team spirit and a passion for serving others,” noted Denver Catholic Charities CEO, Larry Smith. “This challenge is a true win for both Denver and Charlotte, but there’s no doubt we will seize the victory,” Smith continued. Should Charlotte raise more money than Denver, the proceeds will benefit Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Charlotte, which annually serves more than 19,000 people a year with a focus on poverty, disaster relief, refugee assistance and education. They also provide pregnancy support, counseling and family outreach to the local community. However, if Denver wins the Charity Bowl 50, the money will be used to support Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of Denver, which assists thousands of people each year through their women’s services, family outreach, and homeless shelters. Even those who aren’t cheering for a team in the Super Bowl are encouraged to participate in the Charity Bowl 50 to raise money for Catholic Charities. Donations are accepted online at www.CharityBowl50.org and the final tally will be published an hour after the Super Bowl ends. Read more

Pope Francis had a special message for the Eucharistic congress in the Philippines

Cebu, Philippines, Feb 1, 2016 / 07:30 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis’ closing message to the 2016 International Eucharistic Congress said that the Eucharist is a consolation for the Catholic – and also a summons to be a missionary to br… Read more

Why there’s a backlash against solitary confinement in US prisons

Washington D.C., Dec 22, 2016 / 09:56 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Kalief Browder was 16 years old when he entered the notorious Rikers Island prison in New York, awaiting trial for allegedly stealing a backpack. He stayed in solitary almost two years as his family couldn’t pay his bail, enduring beatings by the guards and fellow prisoners and attempting suicide multiple times. He was later released, but last June he committed suicide at age 22. When President Obama announced new limits on the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons earlier this year, he began with Browder’s story. The Jan. 28 executive action ending solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons, among other actions, has reflected a growing chorus of religious and political voices asking for the reform of America’s prison system, and of solitary confinement in particular. Last July, Obama had asked the Justice Department to review the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The department released its report months later, and on Jan. 25 the president announced he would be adopting their recommendations. Among these recommendations were ending the use of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates, creating special mental health units for inmates with severe mental illness, providing psychologists for inmates requiring segregation, and overall reductions in the time inmates will spend in solitary. The concept of solitary confinement does vary among prisons, the report acknowledged, and so it used instead the term “restrictive housing.” There are three general qualifications for restrictive housing in prisons: inmates are set apart from the general prison population, they are alone or with another inmate, and the cell is locked for “the vast majority of the day, typically 22 hours or more.” Prisoners are put in solitary for various reasons: they pose a security risk to other inmates or guards, they are awaiting execution, they are part of a prison gang that must be split up, they are threatened by other inmates, or they have broken a specific prison rule. Or, as reports allege, they are put in solitary for minor infractions and can be returned to solitary for small offenses. While the practice must be curbed, it can be necessary as a security precaution, the Justice Department acknowledged in the report. Yet it went on to add that “as a matter of policy, we believe strongly this practice should be used rarely, applied fairly, and subjected to reasonable constraints.” Ultimately, it is “not rehabilitative,” insisted Anthony Granado, a policy advisor to the United States bishops’ conference in an interview with CNA, while acknowledging that there may be a legitimate, yet “very limited,” usage of solitary confinement for security reasons to protect inmates and guards.   The purpose of punishment is for correction, not retribution, he insisted, citing St. Thomas Aquinas. Thus criminal justice must rehabilitate the prisoner, not dehumanize him. The bishops’ conference has long advocated that juvenile offenders not be treated as adult inmates when it comes to solitary confinement, Granado said, noting that their concerns have been validated by neuroscientific discoveries. The human brain is not fully developed until about 25 years of age, and solitary confinement, if it is harmful to adults, could wreak even more havoc on the still-developing brain of a teenage offender. While the Justice Department noted that the precise number of inmates currently in solitary confinement is hard to determine because of data “gaps”, it did refer to a survey conducted by Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators in 2015 which showed that in 32 states and the District of Columbia, 6.3 percent of the overall prison population was in restrictive housing on a specific date in the fall of 2014. Extended to the other states that did not reply to the survey, the estimated number would have been 80,000-100,000 inmates. Some prisoners remain in solitary confinement for weeks, years, or even decades. Members of the “Angola Three,” three prisoners who were placed in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972 after the murder of a prison guard, spent anywhere from 29 to 43 years in solitary confinement. This long-term isolation can prove devastating to a person’s health and sanity. St. Thomas Aquinas emphasized the “social nature of the human person” in his writings, Granado said. “And when you deprive a person of that sensory experience, that human touch, the human experiences, what happens in solitary confinement … you do really see an adverse impact on persons,” he added. Numerous accounts of prisoners in solitary confinement reveal they suffered severe psychological problems and the deterioration of mental capacities as a result of prolonged isolation and monotony. New York City’s former police commissioner Bernard Kerik served time in federal prison for tax fraud and false statements. He spent 60 days in solitary confinement in a 12-foot by 8-foot cell. He was let out three times per week to shower, and was allowed one 15-minute phone call per month. During his time in solitary, Kerik said he began hallucinating and talking to himself.  “You’ll do anything – anything – to get out of that cell. Anything,” he said at a Heritage Foundation event on prison reform last May. “You’ll say anything, you’ll do anything, you’ll admit to anything.” Shane Bauer, a journalist who was imprisoned in Iran for 26 months from 2009-11 after he and two others crossed the Iran border while hiking in Iraqi Kurdistan, spent four of those months in solitary confinement. In a 2012 piece for Mother Jones magazine, he wrote that “no part of my experience – not the uncertainty of when I would be free again, not the tortured screams of other prisoners – was worse than the four months I spent in solitary confinement.” He actually hoped to be interrogated, he recalled, just to have someone else to talk to. Bauer’s visit to a “special housing unit” at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison actually reminded him of his confinement in Iran, he wrote. At least he had windows – the cell he was visiting did not. He was allowed a 15-minute phone call during his 26-month stint, but the California prisoners were allowed none. What are some devastating effects of solitary confinement? “The one you hear most often is just hopelessness,” Maurice Chammah of the Marshall Project, who has written about criminal justice issues like solitary confinement, noted. “I’ve spoken to people who have been in solitary confinement and they, almost across the board, describe this sense of utter hopelessness that makes it harder for them to kind of climb out of their feelings and find a kind of way forward,” he said. “A lot of times, the suicides actually happen when people are still in solitary confinement.” In his 2011 testimony before the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, Dr. Craig Haney described the plight of inmates in California’s cells of long-term solitary confinement, saying that “prisoners in these units complain of chronic and overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and depression.” Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who served on the faculty at Harvard Medical School over 25 years, wrote back in 1993 about the harm of solitary confinement, saying it “can cause severe psychiatric harm” and explaining that it produces a steady decomposition of the mental faculties. The state of an individual placed in a situation of isolation and monotony can soon become a sort of mental “fog,” he wrote. Then the person becomes oversensitive to things like light and noise. The mind descends into an “inability to focus” and then a sort of “tunnel vision,” an excessive focus often on some negative thought. “I have examined countless individuals in solitary confinement who have become obsessively preoccupied with some minor, almost imperceptible bodily sensation, a sensation which grows over time into a worry, and finally into an all-consuming, life-threatening illness,” he wrote. Sleep patterns are disrupted as well, resulting in lethargy during the day and sleeplessness at night. Many inmates who have spent time in solitary confinement “will likely suffer permanent harm as a result of such confinement,” he added, such as social handicaps that may prove an intractable obstacle to their successful reintegration into society. If solitary confinement can break and permanently damage a person, and they are released back into society – as 95 percent of prisoners eventually are – it could prove a public safety threat, Granado said. When it is used for security reasons, there still must be assurance that “these people have access to the care they need,” he added, like psychological counseling for the mentally ill to determine why they are acting out. Prison wardens and corrections officials, having seen the practical problems that solitary may impose, have tried to humanize the practice by starting rewards programs for inmates who show good behavior. Maurice Chammah has written on this development. The Alger Correctional Facility in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was a trend-setter after it started its own “step-down” program. Chammah, who reported on the program, said the transformation was “incredible.” Prisoners, with a “little bit of hope,” could break the cycle of solitary. And other prisons are following suit. The executive director of Colorado’s Corrections Department Rick Raemisch, who made headlines for spending 20 hours in solitary in 2014, created a step-down program for the state’s prisons before concluding that it still took too long to move prisoners through the process. So he capped the terms of solitary confinement at one year. Some prisons in the state of Washington have implemented conflict resolution and anger management classes into their programs for attendees to speed up their confinement period. Prisons in Texas and New Mexico, where prison gang members have been placed in solitary to break up the gang, allow inmates to be released from solitary if they renounce their prison gang. “I don’t want to overstate the idea that the situation has been fixed,” Chammah said, noting that “across the board, it’s pretty bad.” But overall, he acknowledged, there is “more of an emphasis” on treating mental health problems among inmates in solitary confinement, a significant step forward in prison reform. And the tide of public opinion is turning against the widespread use of solitary confinement. Although Obama’s executive action on juvenile solitary is more “symbolic” than “practical”, since there are only “dozens” of juvenile inmates in federal prisons, Chammah noted, it still marks a “major capstone” to political momentum against the use of solitary confinement, as well as religious momentum. More and more Christians are supporting policies of criminal justice reform, such as limits on use of solitary confinement, he said. He used Pat Nolan as an example, a Catholic who served in the California legislature and a leader in the tough-on-crime movement before going to prison for racketeering from a federal sting operation. After his time in prison, Nolan became a loud voice for prison reform. “A big part of this,” Chammah explained, is the “idea that rehabilitation and Christian ideals of redemption and the ability of an individual to be saved and transform their life can be also part of what prisons do.” “I’ve gone into a lot of prisons in Texas, in Michigan, in New Mexico – Louisiana definitely is a big one – you hear Christian rehabilitation language everywhere,” he explained. People of faith have come to see prisoners how they used to see addicts and foster children – as people in need of redemption. “Punishment is just and right, but we don’t want to dehumanize people and make them worse,” Granado said. “They are created in the image and likeness of God.” Read more

Millions turn out for Mass during Eucharistic Congress in the Philippines

Cebu, Philippines, Feb 1, 2016 / 04:42 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Massive crowds estimated in the millions took part in the Masses and liturgical processions of the eight-day International Eucharistic Congress which recently concluded in the Philippines. “We are called to understand, love and assimilate the very love of Jesus… Our lives too must be offered in sacrifice,” Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said in his Jan. 29 homily. An estimated 1.5 million people attended a Mass and liturgical procession for the International Eucharistic Congress in the Philippines on Friday. The Mass was held on the grounds of the Cebu Provincial Capitol. Archbishop Martin said that the Church became present through the Eucharist. “There is no Church without the Eucharist. The Eucharist constructs the Church,” he said, according to CBCP News, adding that a Eucharistic community must always be a caring one. Friday’s Mass was concelebrated by hundreds of priests and bishops including Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon, the papal legate to the congress; Archbishop Bernardino Auza, who heads the Holy See’s permanent observer mission to the United Nations; and Archbishop Piero Marini, head of the pontifical commission on the International Eucharist Congress. Five thousand boys and girls received their first Holy Communion on Saturday at the Cebu City Sports Complex.   IEC: 5,000 children receive first communion https://t.co/2cAqSc7DoT pic.twitter.com/UhbBHvQE7K — CNN Philippines (@cnnphilippines) January 31, 2016   About 12,000 people took part in the events of the congress itself. The event aims to witness to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and to promote a better understanding of the liturgy and the Eucharist in the life of the Church. The congress is now held every four years. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was among the congress’ speakers. He spoke on the topic “The Eucharist and Mary.” He told Vatican Radio that the Eucharistic congress shows “the power of other people.” “It’s the power of seeing them trying their best to live their faith. And I think that’s the genius of Catholicism: we’re not in this alone.” In contrast to American individualism, he said, the Catholic faith is both personal and something that is “received and lived out together, in a community, with other people that we call the Church.” On Sunday at least 1 million more people attended the Statio Orbis Mass, the Stations of the World Mass that closes the Congress. The name of the Mass refers to the global nature of the gathering. Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon was the closing Mass’ principal celebrant. “The youth of the Philippines is the hope of the Church,” the cardinal said in his homily. “This nation will become light not only to Asia but to the whole world.” He encouraged Filipinos to have many children, suggesting that Christianity is in a “twilight” in the West but the Philippines could be a “new dawn.” “Multiply your children. Multiply your missionaries. Go to Europe and America, there they have more cats and dogs!” The cardinal said that the destruction of the family is “the greatest danger.” He warned against countries whose laws have “started on the path of destroying families.” “The future of the Church depends on Catholic families,” he said Jan. 31. He said that young people are a blessing for the Church and that young people deserve “understanding, not judgment” from the Church. At the close of the Mass, Pope Francis addressed the event in a video message. He encouraged attendees to be “missionary disciples” and bring God’s mercy to everyone. “At each Eucharist, the table of the Lord’s Supper, we should be inspired to follow his example, by reaching out to others, in a spirit of respect and openness, in order to share with them the gift we ourselves have received,” the Pope said. Pope Francis announced that Budapest would host the next International Eucharistic Congress in 2020. Read more

Starring Pope Francis – New film features Holy Father as himself

Vatican City, Feb 1, 2016 / 03:08 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The “Pope of Surprises” is at it again. Pope Francis is set to be featured in the upcoming film “Beyond the Sun,” the first Pope in history to play himself in a big screen p… Read more

The ‘terrorism of gossip’ destroys communities, Pope warns religious

Vatican City, Feb 1, 2016 / 10:33 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Christ-like obedience, the “terrorism of gossip”, and hope for future vocations were some of the themes Pope Francis addressed during a Monday audience marking the end of the Year for Consecrated Life. Some 5,000 religious men and women attended the audience to mark the end of the year dedicated to the consecrated vocation, which ends Tuesday. Setting aside the prepared text, Pope Francis delivered an off-the-cuff address Feb. 1 in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, which centered on what he said were three of the core pillars of the religious life: prophecy, nearness to others, and hope. Pope Francis began by reflecting on obedience of the consecrated person, which is essentially “prophecy.” Religious men and women, he said, are carried by a “strong poverty” and “chaste love” toward a “spiritual paternity and maternity for the Church, an obedience.” The obedience of a consecrated person – to the rule and to their superior – is a “gift of the heart,” he added. The Pope contrasted such obedience with what he described as the “seeds of anarchy” which are sewn by the devil. “The anarchy of the will is the child of the devil, not a child of God,” the Roman Pontiff said. Pope Francis drew attention to the example of Christ, who was not an “anarchist” who used force against his enemies, but rather was obedient to his Father. The second pillar which Pope Francis focused on was that of proximity to others. Consecrated men and women are called to be near to the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike – and this is true even for those in the cloister, he said. Moreover, the consecrated life is not a “status” which separates us: rather, it drives us toward a physical and spiritual closeness to others. Pope Francis especially stressed the importance of maintaining this nearness with the brothers and sisters of their respective communities.   In this context, the Pope warned against what he referred to as the “terrorism of gossip” within the community. A gossip, he said, is like a terrorist who unleashes a bomb within the community. If consecrated men and women were to avoid gossip during the current Jubilee Year of Mercy, it would be a “success for the Church.” Finally, in addressing hope, the third pillar of consecrated life, Pope Francis spoke on the decline in vocations seen in some communities. In view of dwindling and aging communities, the temptation to lose hope “gives us sterility,” the Pope said. Rather, we must pray for more vocations, he said, citing the Old Testament figure of the then-childless Hannah who prayed tirelessly to God for a son. Pope Francis warned that dwindling vocations can cause communities to turn to money. The Pope reminded those present to place their hope in God instead. The Roman Pontiff concluded his address by thanking the consecrated men and women for all they do, each with their own respective charism. “May the Lord give birth to sons and daughters in your congregations,” he said. “And pray for me.” The Year for Consecrated Life began Nov. 30, 2015, and will conclude Feb. 2. Read more