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Witness, discipleship are key to missionary work, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Proclaiming the Gospel is not the same thing as proselytism and often means simply being a neighbor and friend to someone while living an authentically Christian life, Pope Francis said.

Mission "is that dynamic that leads you to be a neighbor to others to share the gift you have received: the encounter of love that changed your life and led you to consecrate your life to the Lord Jesus, good news for the life and salvation of the world," the pope said Feb. 8.

Pope Francis spoke about mission and witness during a meeting with the Missionaries of Africa and the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa, men's and women's religious orders founded 150 years ago by Cardinal Charles Lavigerie of Algiers, Algeria.

Encouraging the missionaries to continue being "nomads for the Gospel," the pope asked them to be "men and women who are not afraid to go into the deserts of this world and seek together the means for accompanying brothers and sisters to the oasis that is the Lord so that the living water of his love can quench their every thirst."

To be a missionary, the pope said, a Christian first must be a disciple of Jesus.

And while the missionaries may be working in situations where an explicit invitation to follow Christ is not possible, he said, their own lives must be firmly rooted in "listening to his word, the celebration of the sacraments and service to your brothers and sisters so that your gestures manifest his presence, his merciful love and his compassion to those to whom the Spirit sends and leads you."

Pope Francis prayed that the Holy Spirit would continue to make the Missionaries of Africa and the Missionaries of Our Lady of Africa "builders of bridges" and promoters of a "culture of encounter" and dialogue where everyone involved "learns to draw riches from the diversity of the other."

The missionaries' dialogue with Muslims deserves particular recognition and the gratitude of the church, the pope said.


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Judge allows survey of church property for border wall construction

IMAGE: CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters

By Rhina Guidos

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A judge in Texas ruled Feb. 6 that the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, must allow federal officials to survey some of its property for possible construction of a border wall on it.

The action had been blocked by Brownsville Bishop Daniel E. Flores, who earlier said he could not consent to it because such a structure "would limit freedom of the church to exercise her mission."

But U.S. District Court Judge Randy Crane said surveying the land would not constitute a "substantial burden" for the church and that federal officials could proceed.

Lawyers representing the diocese opposed the survey, particularly on the stretch of land that includes the historic La Lomita chapel. The structure, in the border city of Mission, is near a levee where the government wants to build part of President Donald Trump's proposed border wall.

Mary McCord, of Georgetown University Law School's Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection and lead counsel for the Diocese of Brownsville, said in a Feb. 7 phone interview with Catholic News Service that while the ruling was not about taking away property from the diocese at this time, attorneys representing the diocese wanted to make clear its opposition based on how it would affect the constitutional right to religious exercise.

"We felt it was important," she said.

The diocese was not surprised that the court granted the government temporary access to the property on which La Lomita chapel sits, and where it will survey, test and perform other investigatory work needed to plan the proposed border wall, McCord said.

"Even this temporary access is an intrusion on those using the chapel for prayer," McCord said in a statement. "But, as the diocese recognizes, the more substantial burden -- which it believes will violate its right to religious exercise under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act -- will come if and when the government seeks to take the property for the building of a wall cutting off La Lomita from those who worship there."

McCord said there's no reason to believe that the area where federal officials want to build the wall near the chapel is of particular importance or shows heightened activity that would make it crucial to U.S. security. Instead, building a wall near it would only impede those who frequent it for religious services and prayer.

The government has proposed some sort of a gate or structure that would allow access to the chapel, if it's built, but even a gate would prevent easy access and may deter worshippers since they can be subject to interrogation just to go into a religious space to pray, she said.  

"It would destroy the peaceful feeling of the place," she told CNS, and so far, federal officials "gave us no indication that they weren't going to build a wall."

The federal government could take other property away from the diocese for the wall, and the " the bishop objects to it," she said, but the area near the chapel will be the most affected because of its nature as a place to worship.

"We still are hopeful" that the government will change its mind, McCord said. "We don't have to have a wall there."

The situation over the border wall near La Lomita could mean a long legal fight ahead, pitting the government's right of eminent domain, as well as its right to appropriate private property for public use, against citizens' rights to exercise freedom of religion.

"This is just the first step in our fight to protect the Rio Grande Valley Catholic community's right to free exercise of religious beliefs," said McCord.


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Archbishop Gomez calls for 'new humanism' amid troubled times

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Jacob Comello

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles told a crowd of priests, women religious and students the story of a Spanish missionary named Montesinos.

Witnessing the cruelty of colonialists to Indians, Montesinos did not back down in a 1511 Advent sermon. The missionary declared: "Are these not men? Have they not rational souls? Are you not bound to love them as you love yourself?"

"In many ways, Montesinos' questions are with us again," Archbishop Gomez said, opening his address Feb. 6 during The Catholic University of America's seventh annual Hispanic Innovators of the Faith lecture series. "What does it mean to be human? What are the obligations we have toward our neighbors? Where is God and Jesus Christ in all of this?"

Speaking "not as a historian or a scholar, but as a pastor of souls," Archbishop Gomez addressed what he called "the crisis of man" in his address, explaining that he meant "a crisis of human nature. Men and women. All of us."

"People have been talking about a 'crisis of man' since at least the end of the Second World War," Archbishop Gomez said. "We forget that in the last century, millions were killed ... in Soviet gulags and Nazi death camps, in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in genocides in nearly every part of the world."

Archbishop Gomez recognized that the crisis persists to this day in the practice of abortion, contraception and euthanasia and even in human trafficking and the "worldwide debates over migrants and refugees."

He questioned how such a crisis started and why it was continuing.

"As I see it, this problem is rooted in our society's broader loss of the awareness of God," the archbishop said.

The crisis might not seem as jarring today, Archbishop Gomez admitted. However, he urged the audience to remain alert, saying that while "atheist humanisms have faded ... the project of the global leadership class to create a world without God and transform the human person according to political and economic dictates ... is still very much alive."

But the archbishop included all people in his indictment: "We think we do not need God to help us run the economy or the government. We think we can rely on politics or science and technology to ... answer every question."

Attempts to cleanse God from society, science and everyday moral sensibilities inevitably will create a society which "no longer believes in the existence of permanent or universal truths like right and wrong," Archbishop Gomez said. The harsh result will be, he explained, as it always has been, "the degrading of the human person."

Instead of realizing that people are all formed in the image of God, "we are coming to see, that if we are not made in the image of God, we can be remade in the image of those who appoint themselves as 'gods,'" he said.

Archbishop Gomez continued, showing the audience a bright path out of the pit: "Always in the church, renewal and reform means returning to the source."

Calling for a "new humanism" rooted in Jesus, the archbishop said the full potential of humanity can only be realized by a revival of Christ as a model for life. "We need to proclaim boldly that Jesus Christ reveals the human face of God and that in his face we see reflected the glory that God intends for our lives," he said.

As a counterpoint to the perspective of atheist humanisms, which he described as seeking to "throw off the 'burden' of God and create 'a new man,'" Archbishop Gomez stressed that accepting Jesus also requires a glorious reinvention of humanity. "In Jesus Christ, we discover that we are born to be 're-born' as God's children, his own beloved sons and daughters."

Archbishop Gomez concluded his address by lifting up Venerable Maria Luisa, a Carmelite nun who faced persecution in 1920s Mexico, as an example of a Hispanic innovator of the faith and someone who understood that humanity's destiny is rooted in Jesus.

"She used to tell people: 'For greater things you were born,'" Archbishop Gomez said, "In this short expression, we have the truth of the Incarnation. And this is the truth about our lives."


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Africa is also grappling with clerical abuse, say Catholic leaders

IMAGE: CNS photo/Afolabi Sotunde, Reuters

By Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) -- When child sexual abuse scandals involving Catholic priests emerge in Africa, they do not draw a frenzied reaction similar to that witnessed in developed countries, but the continent's church is affected, said Catholic leaders.

While there is a general view that the scandals are a challenge of the church in Europe and America, African officials confirm the incidents, amid reports of some provinces expelling or defrocking priests.

In Africa, clerics view the issue as too delicate and sensitive for the public, and many remained tight-lipped on the subject. At the same time, the church leaders said they were concerned about the abuses and closely follow any such reports, both locally and globally.

"Africa is also affected like any other continent, but to what extent, I am not sure," Precious Blood Sister Hermenegild Makoro, general secretary of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, told Catholic News Service.

In October, the South African church defrocked three priests over sexual abuse of children in the parishes. Since 2003, 35 cases of abuse involving priests have been reported to the church in South Africa.

Sister Makoro said out of the 35 cases, only seven were being investigated by the police, and one has led to a life sentence.

Some sources -- including former priests and seminarians -- say some women and Catholic sisters may be victims of the abuses, but Sister Makoro told Catholic News Service in mid-January that the National Professional Conduct Committee of the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference had not received any complaints so far.

Father Christian Anyanwu, director of social communication of the Catholic Secretariat of Nigeria, said cases of child abuses were not pronounced in the country when compared to Europe and America.

However, he noted that the church is a single family, and whatever happens to one anywhere is bound to affect others.

"There are measures being put in place by the (Nigerian) church to ensure that we avoid the mistakes that have been made in Europe and America with regard to child abuse," said Father Anyanwu.

In Kenya, Father Joachim Omolo Ouko, an Apostle of Jesus priest in the Archdiocese of Kisumu, agreed that cases of sexual abuse had also occurred in Africa, but few were reported.

"I think the cover-up is very strong," said Father Ouko.

The Rev. Peter Njogu, a former Catholic priest who left the Catholic Church to start his own church, said more cases had come into the open in the developed world because people were more independent in their faith.

"I think there could be more cases in Africa, but most go unreported because of fear. A Christian family may know a priest abusing a child, but they keep quiet because they fear the institution. I would say it is a colonial mentality; fear of institutionalized religion. Concrete and internalized religion is what is missing," said Rev. Njogu, who heads his Renewed Universal Catholic Church as its archbishop. He alleged there was evidence that some errant priests were getting involved in young families and breaking up marriages.

He claimed since priests started leaving the Catholic Church to join churches started by rebel priests, the Kenyan church has been cautious about disciplining errant priests.

In the Tanzanian Diocese of Bukoba, Father Chrisantus Ndaga said while sexual abuse is a universal problem in the church, the difference in Africa was media coverage and societal perception.

"Some case may be similar to those in other parts of the world, but here it is seen as a societal and a family problem. When it occurs, some families may not want it to go public," said Father Ndaga.

Archbishop Baptist John Odama of Gulu, Uganda, former president of the Ugandan bishops' conference, calls the abuses a crime against children and the failure of humanity.

"Its human weakness ... a failure of humanity to protect its own fruits," said Archbishop Odama. "We must understand it first, start separating the sectors to see where it is occurring, then look for remedies. If we don't understand it, we will be making a failure."

Clerical abuses are of great concern to the rapidly growing African church; analysts say growth is making the continent the future of Catholicism.

Vatican statistics indicate the African Catholic population increased by 19.4 percent from 2010 to 2015. Beyond the statistics, the church is also vibrant, playing a key role in the lives of Catholics.

Recently, some African bishops' conferences have responded by publishing guidelines to help them deal with the abuses.

Sister Makoro said the Southern African conference -- which includes Botswana, South Africa and Swaziland -- introduced child safeguarding policies in 2015 to strengthen the church's response to the abuses.

The Nigerian conference published "Guidelines for Processing Cases of Sexual Abuse of Minors and Vulnerable Adults" in 2017.

"It is implemented in all the 56 dioceses in the Nigerian church. The document specifies what needs to be done in case of child abuse," said Father Anyanwu.

Father Ndaga said child protection was vital, and every institution should develop policies that safeguard and protect children.

"It's a gradual process and I think it's ongoing," said the former official of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in Eastern Africa.

Meanwhile, as the scandals continue, Pope Francis has called to the Vatican heads the world's bishops conferences to discuss how to protect minors and vulnerable people in the church. The meeting is scheduled Feb. 21-24.

Father Ouko said many in the church are hoping that Pope Francis will give some guidelines that bar bishops and other church leaders covering up when such cases are reported.

"I think there should be some punishment for those who are involved in the cover-up," he said.

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Does God want religious diversity? Abu Dhabi text raises questions

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- That many religions exist in the world is a fact, but what that plurality communicates to believers about God is a question that theologians are still discussing.

Pope Francis and Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, a leading authority for many Sunni Muslims, stepped into the debate Feb. 4 when they signed a document on "human fraternity" and improving Christian-Muslim relations.

"The pluralism and the diversity of religions, color, sex, race and language are willed by God in his wisdom, through which he created human beings," the document said.

The document goes on to insist on the basic human right to freedom of religion, appealing to both Christians and Muslims not only to tolerate the religious faith of the other, but to recognize the other's faith as something "willed by God in his wisdom."

In other words, the message seems to be, if God "wants" religious diversity, who are human beings to be intolerant of it?

But can God really "want" a variety of religions? And is that what the statement Pope Francis signed really says?

In a post on the document, Father John Zuhlsdorf, a blogger, tried to explain things by saying that God has an "active or positive will" of what he desires and makes happen, and "a 'permissive will' by which he allows that things will take place that are not in accord with the order he established."

In that case, God tolerates other religions.

But Pope Francis and Sheik el-Tayeb seemed to assert something more and to demand of their faithful an attitude that goes beyond being tolerant of religious pluralism.

Speaking to reporters flying back to Rome with him Feb. 5, the pope said, "I want to restate this clearly: from the Catholic point of view, the document does not deviate one millimeter from Vatican II."

"Nostra Aetate," the council document on the church's relationship with other religions, affirmed: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men."

Proclaiming the church's "esteem" for Muslims, the council noted that "they adore the one God" and strive to submit to his will. "Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, his virgin mother; at times they even call on her with devotion."

The Vatican II document does not say that everything in all religions comes from God, but one cannot deny that God created human beings with a desire to seek and find him, and the world's religions contain at least elements of what is necessary to move toward God.

The Second Vatican Council's teaching gave a strong push to the area of study and reflection called "a theology of religions" or a "theology of religious pluralism."

The field of study is still relatively new, and some theologians specializing in the area have come under scrutiny by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the past 30 years, particularly when they were suspected of moving toward "relativism," a position that would seem to accept all religions as equally valid paths to God.

In "Dominus Iesus," a document published in 2000 on the essential nature of faith in Jesus and membership in the Catholic Church, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned of the danger of "relativistic theories which seek to justify religious pluralism."

The future Pope Benedict XVI said the consequence of believing God willed a variety of religions is to hold "that certain truths have been superseded; for example, the definitive and complete character of the revelation of Jesus Christ, the nature of Christian faith as compared with that of belief in other religions, the inspired nature of the books of Sacred Scripture" and "the universal salvific mediation of the church."

But many academics focusing on religious pluralism and missionaries involved in interreligious dialogue believed Pope Benedict went too far, highlighting a real danger, but describing it as something that always happens.

"Dominus Iesus," they said, implied that Catholics who saw God's hand at work in the formation and continued life of other religions were denying the most important truths of the Christian faith, including the central belief in the saving power of Jesus' life, death and resurrection.

The document Pope Francis signed in Abu Dhabi offered hope to those theologians as they continue to explore the theological implications of affirming that religious pluralism is not an indication of human beings straying from God but is more a sign of the variety of ways God reaches out to his human creatures.

Jesuit Father Felix Korner, a professor of theology a Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University, told Catholic News Service, "When we say 'willed by God in his wisdom' we look at the world in the faith that is shaped by the Bible and the church. God's wisdom has placed us into the story, so we are to contribute to the transformation of all that is."

"Our hope is that at the end all will be transformed into God's kingdom," he said. "On the way there surprising, incomprehensible, seemingly obstructive things happen," but the faithful believe that God will use them all for the good.

In dialogue, he said, "followers of other religions often hope that we join them; we often hope they discover the truth of Christ. But we respect the faith decision they have taken so far, recognizing in this their freedom and God's wisdom."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden


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Copyright © 2019 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