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Confessors should seek to bring penitents closer to Jesus, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Stefano Rellandini, Reuters

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A good confessor is a good listener, Pope Francis said.

By truly listening to the penitent during confession, "we listen to Jesus himself, poor and humble; by listening to the Holy Spirit, we put ourselves in attentive obedience, becoming listeners of the Word" in order to know what God wants to be done, he said.

This is how priests can offer "the greatest service" to all penitents, especially the young, because "we put them in touch with Jesus himself," he said March 9.

The pope spoke to hundreds of confessors and other participants attending an annual course on the sacrament of reconciliation, sponsored by the Apostolic Penitentiary, a Vatican court that handles issues related to the absolution of sin.

He warned confessors to avoid the temptation of becoming "masters" over other people's consciences, especially the young, who are very easily influenced.

A confessor must never forget his is not the source of mercy or grace, but he is, however, an "indispensable instrument, but always just an instrument," the pope said.

Being a conduit between the Holy Spirit and the penitent does not diminish this ministry, rather it leads to its fulfillment, he said.

The more the priest "disappears and Christ, the supreme and eternal priest, appears more clearly," the more the priest fulfills his vocation as "unprofitable servants."

In light of the October Synod of Bishops on young people, faith and vocational discernment, the course this year looked at the relationship between the sacrament of reconciliation and helping others discern their vocation.

The pope said young people should be able to hear what God is saying to them, both in their own conscience and by listening to the word. To achieve this, young people need wise accompaniment by a confessor, he added.

With priest and penitent both prayerfully listening to God's will, confession can become an occasion for discovering God's plan for the individual, he said. Vocations, he added, are never about what form they take, but are about building a life-giving and inseparable relationship with Jesus.

The pope asked confessors to be witnesses of mercy, "humble listeners of young people and of God's will for them; always be respectful of the conscience and freedom of those who come to the confessional, because God himself loves their freedom."

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Sisters minister to intellectually disabled people, offer catechesis

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Daughters of St. Mary of Providence

By Joseph Albino

SYRACUSE. N.Y. (CNS) -- In the nautical world, a "spar" is the straight pole used to support the sails and rigging of a ship.

In the world of faith and the ministry of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence in the Syracuse Diocese, SPAR is the support offered to Catholics with intellectual disabilities to help them to recognize the presence of God in their daily lives and to act in light of the Gospel message.

The sisters' Special Adult Religious Formation Program apostolate, better known as SPAR, operates in accordance with the Catholic Church's teaching that "all baptized persons with disabilities have a right to adequate catechesis and deserve the means to develop a relationship with God."

In Syracuse, the sisters concentrate on offering support for older teens and adults with intellectual disabilities who, when they were of school age, were not able to receive the sacraments of reconciliation, Eucharist and confirmation. They are offered a catechetical program designed with them in mind.

The foundation of the sisters' apostolate is "respect for life and dignity of every human person," according to the sisters' Guanellian ethics code, named for the congregation's co-founder, St. Louis (Luigi) Guanella.

"We hope to contribute to the good of every person who must be helped to live his or her life with conditions that require support, attention and care," the code says. "The centrality of every human person continues over time and cultural changes in our world today."

The Congregation of the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence traces its roots to 1881 when a group of young women in the community of Pianello del Lairo, near Como, Italy, wanted to pursue a ministry for needy individuals including those with disabilities. They rented a house, which they eventually were able to buy, and named it the Little House of Divine Providence and began an apostolate modeled on the Gospel example of the good Samaritan.

The house became known as "Noah's Ark," because the sisters took in orphans, young working women looking for a place to live, people living with epilepsy, the elderly and those living with intellectual disabilities, among others.

The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence came to the U.S. in 1913, arriving in Chicago. Being Italian themselves, the first sisters to arrive assisted Italian immigrants. They established a motherhouse in Chicago for the congregation's U.S. province and opened a residential facility for intellectually disabled children.

The congregation has different missions in various countries, but in the U.S., the sisters made their primary concern caring for and teaching the faith to those with intellectual disabilities.

They also minister to the elderly in nursing homes and those in assisted living and independent living arrangements. Some of the sisters also may serve in parishes as teachers and directors of religious education programs and as extraordinary ministers of holy Communion to provide the Eucharist to the homebound. In years past, they taught in Catholic elementary schools.

After the order became established in Chicago, it spread to East Providence, Rhode Island; Syracuse, New York; Sleepy Eye, Minnesota; Milbank, South Dakota; and Elverson, Pennsylvania, where the sisters operate a retreat center. The U.S. province now encompasses Mexico and the Philippines. There are more than 500 sisters around the world.

The congregation has a male counterpart, the Servants of Charity, founded in 1908. Its priests and brothers pursue similar apostolates in various countries. In the United States, they serve in Chelsea, Michigan; Springfield, Pennsylvania; and Providence, Rhode Island.

The Daughters of St. Mary of Providence were invited to come to the Diocese of Syracuse at the invitation of the late Bishop James M. Moynihan because of a Holy Family Church parishioner, Mary Lou Coons, who was seeking a way to help the intellectually disabled, often praying before the Blessed Sacrament for an answer.

In answer to her prayers, she felt God led her to the Daughters of St. Mary of Providence. She communicated with them through emails and visits and then brought them to the attention of diocesan officials.

Three of the sisters have a home near Holy Family Church in Fairmount, a western suburb of Syracuse.

"It was because of her faith and perseverance in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and her love for the intellectually disabled that Mary Lou Coons searched and found a community that served that category of persons," said Sister Caryn Haas, one of the three sisters.

Sister Haas provides pastoral care for the homebound, which includes helping families prepare for the baptism of their children or for other sacraments through monthly classes. She also can make arrangements for the homebound to receive the Eucharist.

Another of the sisters, Sister Beth Ann Dillon, teaches religion at nearby Bishop Ludden High School and also is campus minister there. Another, Sister Arlene Riccio, schedules faith activities for people with intellectual disabilities on the first floor of the sisters' residence, called the SPAR Center.

For those adults with intellectual disabilities who have received religious and sacramental education through their parishes, SPAR offers a continuing formation program once a month to help deepen the faith planted and grown in their families and parishes.

As the head of the SPAR apostolate, Sister Riccio strives to deepen the faith of those with intellectual disabilities whom she encounters in parishes in the greater Syracuse area.

In addition, for those individuals whose disabilities make classroom learning difficult, Sister Riccio offers small group or one-on-one sessions in a sacramental preparation program. The individuals with intellectual disabilities come to the meetings from a number of different parishes in the area as well as from group homes.

Individuals who live at home are invited regularly to monthly meetings at the SPAR center through a phone call or a mailed flier.

Classes may be held once a week for those individuals who are preparing to receive any of the Sacraments. Often, a sister will go to the home of a person with intellectual disabilities who may not be able to attend a regularly scheduled meeting because of transportation and/or health problems.

Sister Riccio's other goals through the SPAR apostolate include going to group homes to teach general spirituality to residents who are Christian and to teach the Catholic faith to those who are Catholic. Another goal is to line up volunteers who could assist group home residents to go to a church of their choice for Sunday services.

Participants in SPAR programs have different levels of capability, ranging from needing just a little bit of help to needing to learn the difference between ordinary bread and the consecrated eucharistic bread for Communion.

Some need to be taught that reverence is called for at church. Those with intellectual disabilities can be prepared to receive the sacrament of reconciliation if they are able to tell right from wrong and know to confess committing an act that was wrong.

Catechetical materials Sister Riccio uses include the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Program, the recognized full curriculum for people with intellectual disabilities, and "Seasons of Grace," which concentrates on the church's seven sacraments. Loyola Press of Chicago also offers an adaptive religious education program in the faith and in the sacraments.

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Miracles attributed to Pope Paul VI, Romero clear way for sainthood

IMAGE: CNS photos/files/Octavio Duran

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis has cleared the way for the canonizations of Blesseds Paul VI and Oscar Romero.

At a meeting March 6 with Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, Pope Francis signed decrees for the causes of 13 men and women -- among them a pope, an archbishop, two young laywomen and a number of priests and nuns.

He recognized a miracle attributed to Blessed Paul, who, according Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, will be declared a saint in late October at the end of the Synod of Bishops on youth and discernment. Blessed Paul, who was born Giovanni Battista Montini, was pope from 1963 to 1978.

Pope Francis also formally signed the decree recognizing the miracle needed to advance the sainthood cause of Archbishop Romero of San Salvador, martyr.

El Salvador's ambassador to the Holy See, Manuel Roberto Lopez, told Catholic News Service March 7 that the news of the pope's approval "took us by surprise."

"They told us before that the process was going well and that all we needed was the approval of the miracle, and it turns out the pope approved it yesterday," he said.

Lopez told CNS that he was happy that Blessed Oscar Romero's canonization was imminent and that his holiness was recognized alongside one of his earliest supporters.

"To see that he will be canonized along with (Blessed) Paul VI, who was a great friend of Archbishop Romero and supported his work, is a great blessing," Lopez said.

The Vatican did not announce a date for Blessed Romero's canonization.

The pope also recognized the miracles needed for the canonization of: Father Francesco Spinelli of Italy, founder of the Sisters Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament; Father Vincenzo Romano of Italy; and Mother Maria Katharina Kasper, founder of the religious congregation, the Poor Handmaids of Jesus Christ.

He recognized the miracle needed for the beatification of Maria Felicia Guggiari Echeverria, a Discalced Carmelite from Paraguay whom Pope Francis has upheld as a model for the youth of Paraguay. Affectionately called, "Chiquitunga," she died from an unexpected illness in 1959 at the age of 34 before she could make her final vows.

The pope also recognized the martyrdom of a 16-year-old laywoman from Slovakia. Anna Kolesarova, who lived from 1928 to 1944 in the eastern town of Pavlovce, was murdered during Slovakia's occupation by the Soviet army in World War II after refusing sexual favors to a Russian soldier.

In causes just beginning their way toward sainthood, the pope signed decrees recognizing the heroic virtues of Polish Redemptorist Father Bernard Lubienski, who entered the congregation in England and then returned to Poland to re-found the Redemptorists there in the 20th century, and Sandra Sabattini, a young Italian lay woman who was active in helping the poor with the Pope John XXIII Community. She was hit by a car and died in 1984 at the age of 22.

The pope also recognized the heroic virtues of Antonio Pietro Cortinovis of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (1885-1984) and three Italian women -- two who founded religious orders and a laywoman who founded a lay fraternity.

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Junno Arocho Esteves in Rome also contributed to this story.


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U.S. Catholics' political leanings affect their approval ratings of pope

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In the advent of Pope Francis' fifth anniversary in the papacy, a new Pew Research poll of U.S. Catholics shows their regard of the pope is, for the first time, colored by their political leanings.

The survey, released March 6, said it saw "signs of growing discontent with Francis among Catholics on the political right, with increasing shares of Catholic Republicans saying they view Francis unfavorably, and that they think he is too liberal and naive."

In 2014, one year into Pope Francis' papacy, "there was no discernible difference between the share of Catholic Republicans (90 percent) and Democrats (87 percent) who expressed a favorable view of Francis," the survey said. "Today, by contrast, the pope's favorability rating is 10 points higher among Catholic Democrats (89 percent) than among Catholic Republicans (79 percent)."

"In our polling about John Paul II and Benedict XVI, when we look at them we don't see any falloff from them over time," Greg Smith, a Pew senior researcher, told Catholic News Service. "What's interesting about this survey that this is the first one where this political polarization among American Catholics really stands out."

The March 6 poll was the eighth time Pew had asked Catholics their views about the pope. Pew had asked Catholics about Pope John Paul or Pope Benedict eight times total over 25 years -- five times for Pope Benedict and three for Pope John Paul.

Pope Francis still maintains marks any religious or civil leaders would covet: 94 percent of Catholics say he is compassionate and 91 percent say he his humble -- numbers unchanged from a 2015 Pew survey. His overall favorable rating is down one point, from 85 to 84 percent, from a 2014 poll. Those with unfavorable views of the pope were double that of 2014, but still in the single digits at 8 percent.

But "the share of American Catholics who say Pope Francis is 'too liberal' has jumped 15 percentage points between 2015 and today, from 19 percent to 34 percent," the poll said. And 24 percent of U.S. Catholics now say he is naive, up from 15 percent in 2015.

Since 2014, "the share of Catholic Republicans who say Francis represents a major, positive change for the Catholic Church has declined from 60 percent to 37 percent. By contrast, there has been little movement since the end of Francis' first year as pope in the share of Catholic Democrats who view him as a major change for the better," the poll said -- 71 percent today vs. 76 percent four years ago.

Other groups hold Pope Francis in high esteem, although not as much as Catholics do. Of white mainline Protestants, 67 percent approve of Pope Francis' tenure, as do 58 percent of religiously unaffiliated adults.

Slimmer majorities of black Protestants (53 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (52 percent) also approve of the pope. Nine percent of white evangelicals were unfavorable toward Pope Francis when he was chosen pope in 2013. That number has since tripled to 28 percent; it had been 31 percent last year.

The survey introduced new questions not asked in past polls.

Fifty-five percent of Catholics said the priests at their parish are "very supportive" of Pope Francis. Another 23 percent say their priests are "somewhat supportive" of the pontiff.

Similar approval numbers were generated when Catholics were asked whether Pope Francis was doing an "excellent" or "good" job appointing new bishops and cardinals; 58 percent said so. And 55 percent say he is doing an "excellent" or "good" job addressing environmental issues.

A somewhat larger majority -- 63 percent -- said Pope Francis "has done at least a little to promote acceptance of homosexuality," the survey said, adding he has done "about the right amount" or that they would like to see him "do more" on this issue. Also, 64 percent of Catholics say the pope has done at least a little to increase acceptance of divorce and remarriage.

The survey further asked Catholics to describe the most significant thing Pope Francis has done in his time as pope. In response, American Catholics named a broad range of accomplishments without being prompted as to specific issues. Nine percent noted Francis' work in setting a good Christian example, another 9 percent cited his "opening up the church and becoming more accepting." Eight percent said helping the poor; 7 percent said Pope Francis has made the church more accepting toward gays and lesbians; 6 percent mentioned his global outreach; and 5 percent said he is uniting the Catholic community and encouraging open communication and dialogue.

Four percent each cited two negative or neutral actions: becoming overly involved in politics or alienating conservative Catholics. Another 4 percent of respondents said he hasn't done anything significant at all, or that they are still waiting to see what he will do. And 29 percent either did not know or could not name any significant thing that Pope Francis has done.

The Pew survey was conducted Jan. 10-15 by phone among 1,503 adults, including 316 Catholics -- three times as many being contacted by cellphone than by landline. The margin of error was 2.9 percentage points for the full survey, and 6.4 percentage points for Catholics.

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Follow Pattison on Twitter: @MeMarkPattison.

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Don't hold grudges; forgiveness comes from forgiving others, pope says

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Christians must let go of resentments and forgive those who have wronged them so that they may experience God's forgiveness, Pope Francis.

This can be particularly difficult when "we carry with us a list of things that have been done to us," the pope said in his homily March 6 at morning Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"God's forgiveness is felt strongly within us as long as we forgive others. And this isn't easy because grudges make a nest in our heart and there is always that bitterness," he said.

The pope reflected on the day's first reading from the prophet Daniel in which Azariah, one of three young men condemned to death in a fiery furnace, courageously prays for deliverance from God.

"Do not let us be put to shame, but deal with us in your kindness and great mercy. Deliver us by your wonders, and bring glory to your name, O Lord," Azariah prayed.

Although Azariah is innocent of the crime he is condemned for, the pope explained, his attitude of recognizing his own personal sins is the same attitude Christian men and women should have when approaching the sacrament of penance.

"Accusing ourselves is the first step toward forgiveness," the pope said. "To accuse one's self is part of the Christian wisdom. No, not accusing others; (accuse) ourselves. 'I have sinned.'"

God, he added, "welcomes a contrite heart" and when Christians readily admit their faults, "the Lord covers our mouths like the father did to the prodigal son; he does not let him speak. His love covers it, he forgives all."

"These are the two things that help us understand the path of forgiveness: 'You are great Lord, unfortunately I have sinned' and 'Yes, I forgive you 70 times seven as long as you forgive others," Pope Francis said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju.

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