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Benedict XVI unwell since visit to Germany

Rome Newsroom, Aug 3, 2020 / 03:21 am (CNA).- Pope emeritus Benedict XVI is sick with a bacterial infection and “very frail,” according to a German newspaper report.

Citing Benedict biographer Peter Seewald, German newspaper Passauer Neue Presse (PNP) reported Aug. 3 that the 93-year-old pope emeritus is suffering from facial erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin which causes a painful, red rash.

The infection can also result in fever, headaches, and lymphedema. It is treated with antibiotics.

Seewald told PNP that Benedict has been “very frail” since his return from visiting his ailing older brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, in Bavaria in June. Georg Ratzinger died July 1.

Seewald saw Benedict XVI at his Vatican home in the Mater Ecclesia monastery Aug. 1 to present him with a copy of his latest biography of the retired pope.

The journalist said despite his illness, Benedict was optimistic and stated he might take up writing again if his strength returns. Seewald also said the former pope’s voice is now “barely audible.”

PNP also reported Aug. 3 that Benedict has chosen to be buried in the former tomb of St. John Paul II in the crypt of St. Peter’s Basilica. The body of the Polish pope was moved into the upper part of the basilica when he was canonized in 2014.

Like John Paul II, Benedict XVI has written a spiritual testament which can be published after his death.

Benedict XVI resigned from the papacy in 2013, citing advanced age and declining strength that made it difficult to carry out his ministry. He was the first pope to resign in nearly 600 years.

In a letter published in an Italian newspaper in February 2018, Benedict said, “I can only say that at the end of a slow decline in physical strength, inwardly I am on pilgrimage home.”


After challenging California officials, Catholic home for trafficked girls set to open

Denver Newsroom, Aug 2, 2020 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- A Catholic charity that has prepared to open a home for underage victims of human trafficking has reached a resolution with California authorities after it was allegedly pressured to affirm LGBT sexuality, to inject sex hormones into any beneficiaries who identify as transgender, and to agree to drive minors to abortion clinics.

“We were able to meet the state regulations in a way that did not compromise our conscience as a Catholic agency,” Grace Williams, founder and executive director of Children of the Immaculate Heart, told CNA.

The San Diego-based Children of the Immaculate Heart, which has served adult victims of human trafficking since 2013, had aimed to open a house for girls age 12-17 who had been victims of human trafficking. The charity has sought a license for the project for three years.

In November 2019 it filed a lawsuit accusing California officials of delaying the license for the project and violating its constitutional rights. The charity had invested $600,000 in the project and was paying rent and maintenance costs of $15,000 a month.

“It was a big financial hit. It’s a one more year delay. We rented an empty facility for three years,” said Williams, who described the lawsuit as “extremely time-consuming.”

“It’s a loss for girls that couldn’t be home sooner, but we’re happy we are where we are,” she said.

The charity and the government settled outside of court after California requested the process go to mediation. On June 10 the California Department of Social Services issued the organization a provisional license to operate The Refuge as a short-term residential therapeutic program.

The provisional license means Children of the Immaculate Heart may now provide therapeutic services and support for trafficked young people referred to it by the San Diego County Department of Probation and Child Welfare Services.

In November 2019 the organization sued the California Department of Social Services and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency, alleging violation of its constitutional rights in the licensing process. The lawsuit accused government officials of ignoring the charity’s multiple requests for a final decision on its application or for clarification regarding religious objections. They tried to force the charity to agree to facilitate “religiously objectionable” practices such as driving teens to abortion clinics or to LGBTQ-affirming activities, the lawsuit alleged.

At a meeting with state and county authorities, one official reportedly told the charity’s leaders, “You’re just going to have a problem with that religious thing,” according to the lawsuit.

The charity objected that licensing officials appeared to assume that because the charity is Catholic, it would discriminate against self-identified LGBTQ youth. The officials also wrongly questioned the non-profit’s stated mission of restoring victims’ relationship with Christ.

After the lawsuit was resolved, staff training at The Refuge starts next week.

“As an organization our staff is doubling in size,” Williams said. “It’s a big push, operationally, financially, and everything.”

The home plans to open to girls referred from probation and child welfare officials in the third week of August.

The organization was founded to help girls and women “heal from their trauma and to provide opportunities for them,” said Williams, “because, honestly, there haven’t been a lot of opportunities for them.”

“We want them to become economically self-sufficient and, of course, we want them to encounter the love of Christ, which gives meaning and direction to all of our lives, and eternal life,” she said.

The Refuge works out of a four-bedroom home on two acres in Escondido in San Diego County.

It can house up to six girls who may stay for up to two years “so that they can have the best opportunity possible for healing and healthy integration into society,” the organization’s website said. The home provides targeted mental health treatment, family relationship building, life skills development like self-care and job readiness, and individualized academic coursework.

For Williams, the Catholic faith brings a deeper vision to helping victims.

“Catholic organizations are the most equipped for service,” she added, saying the Catholic understanding of human dignity can combine with professional training.

“We just have so much to offer,” said Williams, who co-chaired the San Diego Board of Supervisors’ Human Trafficking Advisory Council Victim Service Committee from 2015 to 2019.

Though there are increasing questions about difficulties for Catholic organizations operating under U.S. law, Williams had advice.

“It’s really a question of ’do not be afraid.’ I think a lot of Catholics avoid doing anything in the public square because it’s hard,” she told CNA.

“We’re going to be misunderstood, we’re going to be judged, people are not going to want us around,” she said. “However, we have everything to offer, and nothing to lose.”

“Maybe the cultural milieu is not on our side, but the constitution is on our side, which is why we felt comfortable filing the lawsuit,” she added. “In the end, we didn’t even have to finish it in court.”

The Refuge project was backed by San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan. In a 2017 letter to state officials, she called Children of the Immaculate Heart a “strong partner” and a “constant presence in the fight against human trafficking.” She urged officials to issue the license, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports.

The organization has a housing and rehabilitation program for adult women survivors of sex trafficking who have children. As of December, it was serving 13 women and their 18 children.

Officials’ feedback to the group’s application for the young girls home questioned how the charity would serve non-religious youth.

Licensing officials voiced concern that the organization did not detail how it would ensure transportation to LGBTQ programs or would ensure procedures for “gender transition” medication. The state said the nonprofit did not provide an explanation or a procedure to prevent discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

Children of the Immaculate Heart said its nondiscrimination policy is adequate and that there is no rule requiring caregivers to administer medication in transgender procedures.

While California law requires the caregivers of foster youth to provide transportation to medical appointments, and to provide “age-appropriate, medically accurate information about reproductive and sexual health care,” there could be alternatives that would not involve the Catholic charity.

A state guide for foster youth case managers addresses a similar hypothetical situation, the San Diego Union-Tribune said. If a minor in foster care were to seek an abortion, and the caregiver refused to aid this effort, the minor’s case manger would have to arrange alternative transportation, for instance.

The Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund represented the charity, with the Thomas More Society as co-counsel.

“The extraordinary women at Children of the Immaculate Heart just want to take care of commercially sexually exploited girls without being forced to violate their faith,” Daniel Piedra, executive director of the Freedom of Conscience Defense fund, said in November. “This case does not endanger the personal rights or health of girls. It only deals with a discriminatory mandate imposed by anti-Christian government officials.”

“The longer government bureaucrats place radical identity politics over saving innocent prostituted teen girls, the more money traffickers can make,” Pedra charged, claiming the government’s actions were “not just unconstitutional; they’re downright evil.”

Warsaw cardinal laments ‘desecration’ of Christ statue with rainbow flag

CNA Staff, Aug 2, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- A Polish cardinal has urged protesters to respect religious sensibilities after they attached a rainbow flag to a historic statue of Christ in the capital, Warsaw.

In a statement published on the Polish bishops’ conference website July 29, Cardinal Kazimierz Nycz deplored the protesters’ decision to target the statue outside Holy Cross Church on Krakowskie Przedmieście, one of the city’s best-known streets.

The statue, which depicts Christ carrying the cross and pointing to the sky, sits on a plinth inscribed with the words “Sursum corda” (Lift up your hearts) -- a message that has encouraged Poles during some of the darkest times in their history.

Placed outside the church in 1858, it remained standing during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Nazis, who destroyed up to 90% of the city’s buildings in response to the Uprising, eventually toppled the statue.

A photograph from the time shows the broken statue lying amid rubble with its finger pointed to the “Sursum Corda” inscription above, which was seen as a sign of God’s providence amid the Nazi occupation.

Nycz, the Metropolitan Archbishop of Warsaw, said: “The desecration of the historic statue of Christ ‘Sursum corda’ at Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw caused pain to believers, parishioners of the Holy Cross Church and many residents of the capital, for whom the statue of the Savior carrying the cross became a symbol of hope in the most difficult days of the Uprising.”

“I appeal for respect for the religious feelings of believers regardless of their views. Let us stop using acts of vandalism and crossing borders in public debate.”

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was pictured praying at the foot of the statue on July 29. In a statement on his Twitter account, he wrote: “There is no consent to profaning national and religious symbols in the name of any ideology. The values they symbolize, important to millions of Poles, are a heritage that is subject to special protection. You cannot become an aggressor under the guise of supposed equality.”


Nie ma zgody na profanowanie symboli narodowych i religijnych w imię żadnej ideologii. Wartości, które symbolizują, ważne dla milionów Polaków, są dziedzictwem, które podlega szczególnej ochronie. Nie można pod płaszczykiem rzekomej równości stawać się agresorem.

— Mateusz Morawiecki (@MorawieckiM) July 29, 2020  

On the night of July 28-29, activists dressed in black attached a rainbow flag to the statue’s arm and a scarf with an anarchist symbol across Christ’s face, leaving behind a card containing their LGBT rights manifesto. Protesters also targeted other prominent monuments in the city.

The incident took place weeks after a hard-fought presidential election narrowly won by the incumbent, President Andrzej Duda, who is associated with the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS).

On June 10, Duda signed a “Family Charter” opposing same-sex marriage and adoption, and committing himself to the “protection of children from LGBT ideology.”

Sebastian Kaleta, Poland’s vice-minister of justice, referred the statue incident to the prosecutor’s office, arguing that it broke laws related to offending religious feelings and profaning national monuments. 

The Polish daily newpaper Gazeta Wyborcza reported July 30 that the prosecutor’s office had opened an investigation.

Pope Francis tells youth at Medjugorje: be inspired by the Virgin Mary

Vatican City, Aug 2, 2020 / 07:30 am (CNA).- Pope Francis has urged young people gathered in Medjugorje to imitate the Virgin Mary by abandoning themselves to God.

He issued the appeal in a message to an annual youth meeting in Medjugorje, read out Aug. 1 by Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“The great example of the Church that is young in the heart, ready to follow Christ with new freshness and fidelity, always remains the Virgin Mary,” the pope said in the message, sent in Croatian and released by the Holy See press office Aug. 2.

“The power of Her ‘Yes’ and Her ‘Let it be unto me’ which she said before the angel, delights us at all times. Her ‘Yes’ means to participate and take risks, without any guarantee except knowing that she is the bearer of the promise. Her ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’ (Luke 1:38), the most beautiful example that tells us what happens when a man, in his freedom, surrenders himself into God’s hands.”

“Let this example inspire you and be your guideline!”

Pope Francis approved Catholic pilgrimages to Medjugorje in May 2019, but he has not made a deliberation on the authenticity of the alleged Marian apparitions reported at the site since 1981. 

His message to young people gathered at the site did not mention the alleged apparitions, which began June 24, 1981, when six children in Medjugorje, a town that was then part of communist Yugoslavia, began to experience phenomena which they have claimed to be apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

According to the “seers,” the apparitions contained a message of peace for the world, a call to conversion, prayer and fasting, as well as certain secrets surrounding events to be fulfilled in the future.

The alleged apparitions at the site in Bosnia and Herzegovina have been a source of both controversy and conversion, with many flocking to the city for pilgrimage and prayer, and some claiming to have experienced miracles at the site, while others claim the visions are not authentic.

In January 2014, a Vatican commission concluded a nearly four-year-long investigation into the doctrinal and disciplinary aspects of the Medjugorje apparitions, and submitted a document to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

When the congregation has analyzed the commission’s findings, it will finalize a document on the site, which will be submitted to the pope, who will make a final decision.

In his message to youngsters at the 31st International Prayer Encounter of the Youth in Medjugorje, which takes place Aug. 1-6, Pope Francis said: “The annual encounter of the youth in Medjugorje is the time filled with prayer, reflections and fraternal meeting, time that gives you the opportunity to meet the living Jesus Christ, in a special way in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”

“It thus helps you discover a different way of life, different from the one offered by the culture of the temporary, according to which nothing can be permanent, the culture that knows only the pleasure of the present moment. In this atmosphere of relativism, in which it is difficult to find true and sure answers, the motto of the Festival: ‘Come, and you shall see’ (John 1:39), the words used by Jesus to address his disciples, are a blessing. Jesus is also looking at you, inviting you to come and stay with Him.”

Pope Francis visited Bosnia and Herzegovina in June 2015 but declined to stop in Medjugorje. En route back to Rome, he indicated that the process of investigation into the apparitions was nearly complete.

On the return flight from a visit to the Marian shrine of Fatima in May 2017, the pope spoke about the final document of the Medjugorje commission, sometimes referred to as the “Ruini report,” after the head of the commission, Cardinal Camillo Ruini, calling it “very, very good,” and noting a distinction between the first Marian apparitions at Medjugorje and the later ones.

“The first apparitions, which were to children, the report more or less says that these need to continue being studied,” he said, but as for “presumed current apparitions, the report has its doubts,” the pope said.

Pilgrimages to Medjugorje have declined in numbers due to the coronavirus crisis. Radio Free Europe reported March 16 that the pandemic had diminished significantly the number of visitors to the town, especially from Italy.

The pope concluded his message to the youth meeting by quoting from Christus vivit, his 2019 post-synodal apostolic exhortation to young people. 

He said: “Dear youth, ‘keep running attracted by that face of Christ, whom we love so much, whom we adore in the Holy Eucharist and acknowledge in the flesh of our suffering brothers and sisters. May the Holy Spirit urge you on as you run this race. The Church needs your momentum, your intuitions, your faith.’”

“In this race for the Gospel, inspired by this Festival as well, I entrust you to the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, invoking the light and the power of the Holy Spirit so that you may be true witnesses of Christ. Therefore, I pray and I bless you, asking you to pray for me, too.”

Pope Francis urges Catholics to follow ‘God’s logic’

Vatican City, Aug 2, 2020 / 06:00 am (CNA).- Pope Francis urged Catholics Sunday to follow “God’s logic” by taking responsibility for the welfare of others.

In his Angelus address Aug. 2, he reflected on Sunday’s Gospel, the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21).

He noted that at sundown the “practical” disciples had urged Jesus to send away the hungry crowd to find food. But Jesus replied: “You give them something to eat.” 

“Jesus wants to use this situation to educate His friends, both then and now, about God’s logic,” the pope said, according to an unofficial translation provided by the Holy See press office.

“And what is God’s logic that we see here? The logic of taking responsibility for others. The logic of not washing one’s hands, the logic of not looking the other way.” 

“No. The logic of taking responsibility for others. That ‘let them fend for themselves’ should not enter into the Christian vocabulary.”

Pope Francis recalled that, after the disciples had presented Jesus with five loaves of bread and two fish, Christ performed a miracle enabling everyone to eat as much as they wanted. 

He said: “With this gesture, Jesus demonstrates His power; not in a spectacular way but as a sign of charity, of God the Father’s generosity toward His weary and needy children. He is immersed in the life of His people, He understands their fatigue and their limitations, but He does not allow anyone to be lost, or to lose out: He nourishes them with His word and provides food in plenty for sustenance.”

Speaking from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the pope pointed out the connection between the miracle of the multiplication of loaves and the Eucharist.

“It is noteworthy how close the link is between the Eucharistic bread, nourishment for eternal life, and daily bread, necessary for earthly life,” he observed. 

“Before offering Himself to the Father as the Bread of salvation, Jesus ensures there is food for those who follow Him and who, in order to be with Him, forgot to make provisions. At times the spiritual and the material are in opposition, but in reality spiritualism, like materialism, is alien to the Bible. It is not biblical language.”

He continued: “The compassion and tenderness that Jesus showed towards the crowds is not sentimentality, but rather the concrete manifestation of the love that cares for the people’s needs.” 

The pope said that Catholics should approach the Eucharist with the same compassionate attitude that Jesus displayed during the feeding of the 5,000. 

“Compassion is not a purely material feeling; true compassion is ‘patire con’ (to suffer with), to take others’ sorrows on ourselves,” he said. 

“Perhaps it would do us good today to ask ourselves: Do I feel compassion when I read news about war, about hunger, about the pandemic? So many things... Do I feel compassion toward those people? Do I feel compassion toward the people who are near to me? Am I capable of suffering with them, or do I look the other way, or ‘they can fend for themselves’?” 

He concluded: “Let us not forget this word ‘compassion,’ which is trust in the provident love of the Father, and means courageous sharing.” 

After reciting the Angelus, the pope expressed his sorrow at a firebomb attack on a cathedral in Nicaragua on July 31.

He also highlighted the feast of the Pardon of Assisi, which is celebrated on August 1-2. The Pardon of Assisi, or Porziuncola Indulgence, enables Catholics to gain a plenary indulgence, removing all of the temporal punishment due to sin.

Describing the indulgence as a spiritual gift that St. Francis of Assisi received from God through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, Pope Francis noted the conditions for obtaining the indulgence. They consist of Confession, reception of the Eucharist, visiting a parish or Franciscan church, recitation of the Creed and Our Father, and prayer for the pope and his intentions. The indulgence may be applied to the living or the dead. 

He said: “How important it is to always put God’s forgiveness, which ‘generates heaven’ in us and around us, back at the center, this pardon that comes from God’s heart who is merciful!”

Looking at pilgrims gathered in the square below, the pope greeted a group from Palosco, in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, Brazilians holding their national flag, and those devoted to Mary Immaculate. 

He said he hoped that in the coming days everyone would be able to rest, spend time in nature, and be spiritually refreshed.

“At the same time I hope that, with the converging commitment of all political and economic leaders, work might resume: families and society cannot continue without work. Let us pray for this,” he said. 

“It is and will be a problem in the aftermath of the pandemic: poverty and lack of work. A lot of solidarity and creativity will be needed to resolve this problem.”

Pope Francis deplores firebomb attack on Catholic cathedral in Nicaragua

Vatican City, Aug 2, 2020 / 04:35 am (CNA).- Pope Francis deplored a firebomb attack on a cathedral in Nicaragua Sunday.

Speaking after his Angelus address Aug. 2, he condemned the incident in which an unidentified man threw a firebomb into a chapel of Managua’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, severely damaging the chapel and a devotional image of Christ more than three centuries old.

The attack took place July 31 amid rising tensions between the Church and the Nicaraguan government. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua described the attack as “a terrorist act.”

Speaking from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, the pope said: “I am thinking of the people of Nicaragua who are suffering because of the attack in the Cathedral of Managua, where an image of Christ that is highly venerated, that has accompanied and sustained the life of the faithful people for centuries, was greatly damaged -- almost destroyed.”

“Dear brothers and sisters in Nicaragua, I am near you and am praying for you.”

On Aug. 2, you can get this St. Francis-themed indulgence

New York City, N.Y., Aug 2, 2020 / 03:18 am (CNA).- Today's feast of Our Lady of the Angels of Porziuncola and its associated indulgence is a way to focus on the importance of Mary and the Franciscan tradition in the Church, said one friar.

The Aug. 2 feast is found in the Franciscan tradition, and marks the dedication of the parish church, called Porziuncola or “little portion,” which is one of those Italy's St. Francis of Assisi rebuilt in obedience to Christ's command to “rebuild my church.”

“The Porziuncola is at the heart of the Franciscan journey,” Father David Convertino, the development director for the Holy Name Province of the Observant Franciscans, told CNA.

“For Francis, it was his most beloved place. He lived near it with the early followers … and he loved the Porziuncola, as it was part of his devotion to Our Lady.”

The Catholic Church teaches that after a sin is forgiven, an unhealthy attachment to created things still remains. Indulgences remove that unhealthy attachment, purifying the soul so that it is more fit to enter heaven. Indulgences are either plenary (full) or partial.

A plenary indulgence also requires that the individual be in the state of grace and have complete detachment from sin. The person must also sacramentally confess their sins and receive Communion up to about 20 days before or after the indulgenced act.

Anyone who visits a Catholic church with the intention of honoring Our Lady of the Angels and recites the Creed, the Our Father, and prays for the Pope's intentions, may receive a plenary indulgence on Aug. 2.

“Any kind of a prayer form that helps people come closer to God is obviously a good prayer form, and certainly an indulgence is one way,” Fr. Convertino said.

“It helps us focus on, in this case, the meaning of the Porziuncola and the Franciscan tradition, how it's situated in the greater idea of the Church.”

Porziuncola located inside the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli near Assisi. Credit: emmav674 via Flickr (CC BY_NC_SA 2.0)

The Porziuncola was built in honor of Our Lady of the Angels in the fourth century, and by St. Francis' time had fallen into disrepair. The church, which was then located just outside of Assisi, became the “motherhouse” of the Franciscan orders.

“Although Francis realized that the kingdom of heaven is found in every dwelling on earth … he had learned nevertheless that the church of Saint Mary at Portiuncula was filled with more abundant grace and visited more frequently by heavenly spirits,” says the life of St. Francis written by Friar Thomas of Celano, read today by Franciscans.

“Consequently he used to say to his friars: 'See to it, my sons, that you never leave this place. If you are driven out by one door return by the other for this is truly a holy place and God’s dwelling.'”

Fr. Convertino added that the Porziuncola “was the place he chose to lie next to on his deathbed, and at that time of course you could have looked up to the city of Assisi, which he also loved so well.”

The Porziuncola, a rather small chapel, is now located inside a large basilica which was built around it, to enclose and protect it.

“You have this large basilica built over this teeny tiny little chapel,” Fr. Convertino reflected. “If that chapel wasn't there then the basilica wouldn't be there, but if the basilica wasn't there, the chapel probably wouldn't be there either, given 800 years of war, weather, and turmoil.”

For Fr. Convertino, the duality of the big church and the little church is a reflection of the relationship between the world-wide Catholic Church and the smaller communities which make it up.

“We feel the Franciscans kind of convey, we're the ones at the heart of the Church, the little church there.”

He said that each time he visits Assisi, the “experience” of the Porziuncola is “compounded more and more,” and added that “it's such a magnificent place, and the friars there are wonderful.”

Fr. Convertino also discussed the fresco now painted around the entrance of the Porziuncola, which shows St. Francis, together with some of his followers, receiving the indulgence from Christ and Our Lady.

“The idea behind the story is that Francis is asking Jesus for a Porziuncola indulgence, and Jesus is saying to Francis, 'Well, you really better ask Mary, ask my mother.'”

This article was originally published Aug. 2, 2013.

How Natural Family Planning is spreading in West Africa

Denver Newsroom, Aug 1, 2020 / 02:46 pm (CNA).- In countries throughout Western Africa, the most common religions are Islam and Catholicism. Both of these religions reject the use of artificial means of birth control, such as condoms or birth control pills.

But in government health clinics in most of these countries, artificial birth control methods are often the only options offered for planning and spacing one’s family.

That is what Jennifer Overton and her team with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in West Africa are trying to change.

“There was a need for natural family planning services,” Overton said. “There was a need to learn more about what options were available to [local families] that did align with their cultural and religious beliefs.”

“We found that a lot of the health centers, run by the government, even in countries where you have a high percentage of Catholics or a high percentage of Muslims, were not offering these. Even though that's what their clients or the local populations followed because of religious reasons, the health centers were only offering artificial methods.”

Overton is the CRS regional director for West Africa, a region of 12 countries. She oversees more than a thousand employees, most of whom are from the countries in which they work. Overton said she and her team started partnering with local and global organizations about five or six years ago to more widely spread knowledge of natural Fertility Awareness Methods (FAMs) of family planning and spacing in the area, where big families with 12 or 13 children are not uncommon in some countries.

“We were really trying to meet a need for culturally appropriate health services for birth spacing,” Overton said.

She emphasized that the goal was not to convince families to have fewer children, as large families are considered a blessing by most cultures and religions in the region.

“We're just saying space the children, because we have very high maternal mortality and we have very high infant mortality,” Overton said. “A lot of times that's due to...the pregnancies are spaced too closely together. [The mother] isn't able to take the two years that's recommended to breastfeed, to care for that newborn the first thousand days of life, and make sure the child has good nutrition and good health care.”

“There's a lot of good justification for birth spacing for the health of the mother and the health of baby,” she said.

One of the primary Fertility Awareness Methods being taught in the area by CRS and its partners is the TwoDay method, through which a woman notes her fertility by evaluating her cervical mucus twice a day, sometimes in conjunction with the Standard Day method, by which women track their fertile and infertile days on a string of beads. The Lactational Amenorrhea Method (LAM), which is based on the fertility suppression brought about by breastfeeding exclusively on demand for six months postpartum, is also taught.

These methods are simpler, less expensive, and require less equipment than some of the methods more common in developed nations. Each method is between 95-98% effective with proper use, Overton said.

The biggest hurdle, Overton noted, was working with cultural norms and expectations in some very conservative cultures in the area, in which men only socialize with other men and women only socialize with other women, and joint decision-making between couples was not the norm.

“It's just a different kind of relationship than what we're used to in the West,” she said. “It is more traditional, more male-dominated. Men tend to make most of the decisions in the household.”

Strengthening the communication between couples, as well as their willingness to make decisions together, was something that had to come first, before they could dive into even more taboo subjects like a woman’s menstrual cycle, Overton said.

“We found that a lot of the issues come back to the fact that a husband and wife maybe weren’t communicating about these kinds of things,” she said. “Not just about when do they want their next child, but they might not even be communicating about chores in the house, or money for school fees, or money for food, or whatever it is. We have found that this method really helps bring these couples together. We've even heard stories of it reducing domestic violence and things like that.”

“We've had testimonies from women who say, ‘Oh, now my husband asks me how my day was at the end of the day.’ Or if a husband goes away for three days for a business trip, it would be common in some cultures for the man to just leave the woman to run the house. Now, the man will say, ‘I'm going away for three days and this is where I'm going.’ Then when he comes back, ‘How are you? How are the kids?’”

Overton said once she saw how much communication was lacking among some couples, “you understand how complicated it would be to even start talking about menstrual cycles.”

To do this more effectively, CRS started using what they called SMART Couples programming (Strengthening Marriages and Relationships through Planning and Communication) during a pilot program in 2016-2017, through a partnership with the Institute for Reproductive Health (IRH) at Georgetown University, the Ministries of Health in Niger, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, Ghana Health Services, and the Catholic Church in the region.

Couples met in groups of 10-12 and learned communication and joint decision-making skills, as well as a method of fertility awareness-based family planning and other tips about healthy marriages, pregnancies and families, Overton said.

The results of the program showed not only results with birth spacing and family planning, Overton said, but other positive effects from improved communication within relationships. She said they noticed an increase of empathy within relationships, particularly among husbands, who were more aware of the needs of their wives.

One of the keys to the program’s success, Overton said, was having the support of the Catholic Church and Muslim leaders.

“A lot of questions are asked about...religion and culture, and do these things go against their religion?” she said.

Overton said to reassure these couples, they bring in religious leaders from both Islam and Catholicism who can talk about why these natural methods do not contradict their beliefs.

“We have sections of the Quran that we quote where the Prophet Muhammad, he talked about maybe a large family, but healthy children. He does talk about caring for your wife. He talks about caring for your children,” she said. “It's very much respectful of local culture and respectful of local religion. The same for in the Catholic teaching. We have the bishops in Ghana and Burkina Faso - they love this program.”

“When people hear [about Fertility Awareness Methods] from their priest or their bishop, then they know like, ‘Okay. This is okay. This is sanctioned by the Church.’ That really helps to have the support of the religious leaders.”

“Overall, we had like 1,600 couples as a result of the work that we did, adopt these methods. They were actively using these methods. That's what they told us when we did the survey,” Overton said.

“It's not millions of people, but we're in the thousands and that's pretty encouraging. This was just for this short pilot. It doesn't include the expansion phase,” she added. “What also is very encouraging is some of these couples, a lot of them, had never, ever used any kind of birth spacing. They had never planned their families, never talked about planning families, never talked about any kind of birth spacing. That is really amazing, that this is the first time people are using it.”

The program was particularly successful in Niger, which has the highest fertility rate in the world, with each woman having about 7 children on average. During the pilot phase of the program, CRS trained 700 couples in 52 villages in Fertility Awareness Methods in the country. They also partnered with the Department of Health with the government of Niger, which then included resources on FAMs in all of their health clinics in the country.

The project continues today together with a food security program funded by USAID, and CRS has trained an additional 150+ health workers at government health centers and more than 400 couples who will serve as trainers in the program at the community level, Overton said.

Across the whole continent, Overton said this method of spreading knowledge about FAMs has been used in 18 African countries and has reached close to 200,000 beneficiaries.

She said she is hopeful that instruction in FAMs will continue throughout her region and reach even more people, as attitudes and practices change. She said she has seen great cooperation with local governments, who know that their populations will reject artificial methods of birth control.

“That’s all we're saying - let's have options for everybody.”


Catholic school superintendent: ‘Our kids need to go back to school’ 

Denver Newsroom, Aug 1, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- Bishops and school superintendents across the US are emphasizing the importance of in-person education for the coming fall term, and are seeking to reassure parents that schools are taking the precautions necessary to keep children safe.

In Florida, where Governor Rick Scott has issued an order mandating that schools must reopen in person in the fall, superintendents say they are doing everything they can to prepare to welcome students in safely while also offering remote learning for those who need it.

Chris Pastura, superintendent of schools in the St. Petersburg diocese, told CNA in an interview July 31 that he and other leaders in the diocese believe strongly it is important for students to come back in person.

"Our kids are loved every day, they're in a community, they're in a faith community, they're celebrating the sacraments— I think our kids need that environment. Our kids need to go back to school."

"COVID is not the only dangerous thing in our society. Lack of community, loneliness, and all those kinds of things affect kids. And I think it's important for our kids to be back in school."

Florida has become a center of the US coronavirus outbreak of late, with infections on the rise over the past few months.

From a pro-life standpoint, Pastura said, the schools in his diocese will be doing comprehensive testing for their employees, and other measures such as social distancing in the classroom to protect the students.

On Monday, the Diocese of St. Petersburg sent a letter to the parents of its nearly 13,000 students asking them to sign a waiver of liability, choosing to accept the risk that their children may be sickened by coronavirus at school.

Several other dioceses in Florida and a number of others across the country are asking parents of students returning to class in-person to sign similar waivers.

Pastura said for the most part, parents are accustomed to signing waivers for almost any activity their child does. The diocese had in spring drafted a waiver for summer camps, and early in the summer began to consider adapting it for the school year, as well.

All schools are giving the option of coming back in person, or doing online learning for students in high-risk medical categories, or who may have high-risk people in their households, Pastura said. 

The idea, he said, was to create a "statement of understanding" for parents, make them aware that a child could contract coronavirus despite the school's best efforts.

"Since this is just such uncharted territory, we thought it was important for people to first realize that we are doing all kinds of plans to make sure that our students and our employees are safe, and we're trying to make sure we do this the right way."

However, Pastura said, the school cannot possibly know what children are being exposed to outside the seven hours a day they spend at school.

"The release from liability— is it overly cautious? Maybe," he said.

"But we do live in a very litigious society, and we just thought it to be prudent...providing families with a very clear statement, I think that's the responsible thing to do, I think it's the fair thing to do."

Being asked to sign a waiver for any activity can raise red flags for people, Pastura said, and because there is so much uncertainty around coronavirus, it is understandable that parents may not understand the importance of the waiver.

Pastura said he and his Catholic school colleagues at other dioceses across Florida speak regularly about their reopening plans. He said he hopes that parents will trust those in authority over the state's Catholic schools, and recognize that those authorities are creating reopening plans with students' best interests at heart.

"There's a lot that goes into these decisions, and sometimes we just have to have some faith in one another. Even if we don't agree with someone's decision, maybe we can accept that it was made in good confidence based on the information available."

The superintendent of schools for the Pensacola-Tallahassee diocese has also spoken out about the importance of opening Catholic schools in person.

"We feel that their spiritual growth is vital to them. We're educating the whole child, and spiritually is a big part of that," superintendent Mike Juhas told EWTN News Nightly.

Elsewhere, the bishops of California said this week that Catholic schools in California are taking appropriate measures against the threat of coronavirus and authorities should issue waivers to rules that bar the schools from reopening for “vital” in-person education, citing the low risk of coronavirus infection among children.

Initially, the nation’s largest Catholic archdiocese of Los Angeles, with 74,000 students attending its schools, announced on June 15 that schools would be reopening for in-person learning in the fall in Los Angeles, Ventura, and Santa Barbara.

However, California governor Gavin Newsom said on July 17 that schools in the state where coronavirus cases were high would remain closed for in-person learning.

Meanwhile, in Texas where COVID-19 cases have soared in the summer, the state is granting religious private schools the freedom to decide for themselves how to reopen in the fall.

In a July 29 joint op-ed, the archbishops of New York Boston and Los Angeles exhorted Congress and President Trump to adopt a federal scholarship tax credit modeled after successful state-level credits in order to assist private schools. Such a program would now be possible following the Supreme Court’s landmark June ruling in Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, they said.

The bishops argued that Catholic schools— many of which are facing closure amid the pandemic— are worth saving because of their savings to taxpayers and their success in creating successful and well-formed citizens.

“Students and families for generations have benefited from Catholic schools, which have benefited America as a whole. This is now in serious jeopardy, as another sad legacy of the coronavirus pandemic,” Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, and Archbishop José Gómez wrote.

“Urgent action by President Donald Trump and Congress to meet the needs of Catholic and other school families will preserve this important education option for generations to come and prevent added financial burdens on our government school systems.”




Catholic retreat center converts to coronavirus quarantine site

Denver Newsroom, Aug 1, 2020 / 06:01 am (CNA).- In Washington state, one of the first coronavirus hotspots in the United States, an empty Catholic retreat center will temporarily transform into a quarantine facility for coronavirus patients, the Diocese of Spokane has announced.

In February, the cancelations were already piling up from individuals and retreat groups scheduled to visit the Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, located just south of Spokane.

Prospective retreatants, fearful of the novel coronavirus, which was just beginning to be detected in the United States, were fearful of coming together with people from other households and potentially contracting the virus.

“We were looking at a significant loss of revenue,” Michael Pallardy, development officer for the IHRC, told CNA.

The retreat center officially closed its doors in March, and as of June, it became clear that the center would likely have to cancel all of its retreats and events for the rest of the calendar year. While Deacon John Ruscheinsky, director of IHRC, and his team strategized about the future of the center in light of the coronavirus pandemic, he received an unexpected offer from Dr. Bob Lutz, Clinical Director of the Spokane Regional Health District.

Lutz proposed that in partnership with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington and the IHRC, the retreat center could temporarily be used as a quarantine facility for those with COVID-19. “So Deacon John Mashinsky went to Bishop Daly and told the Bishop what was proposed and asked the Bishop, what do you think?” Pallardy said. “And the Bishop gave him his blessing and said, ‘Please proceed, see if this possibly can happen.’”

"I wish to thank all parties involved for the professional manner in which they have addressed this temporary transition of IHRC from retreat center to a quarantine facility,” Bishop Daly said in a statement announcing the change. “Please join me in prayer for its success. May Our Lady of Lourdes guide our efforts in helping others in need."

The quarantine facility, which is set to open by the end of August at the latest, will serve “individuals who are actually diagnosed with COVID-19 symptoms, or those who had tested positive, but weren't showing symptoms yet. They also said that we would be helping the most needy and vulnerable of our society, so those individuals who are living on the street, who have no place to go who become ill and therefore become a carrier (of COVID-19),” Pallardy said.

Immaculate Heart Retreat Center, which has been open for more than 60 years, has 64 dormitory rooms in the main building, kitchen and dining facilities, and normally serves more than 7,000 retreatants in an average year. The plan is to separate the symptomatic patients and asymptomatic patients in the center, Pallardy noted.

He added that it seemed “obvious” to allow the retreat center to be used for this purpose, because “part of our mission is to help. Immaculate Heart is a place where people come for hope, peace and healing, and how best can we help those who are suffering with this illness, but to help them heal and in a prayerful place and a peaceful place?”

Pallardy said the work has already begun to transform the retreat center into the quarantine site - additional security cameras, air conditioning, and other updates are being made, and the health district and Catholic Charities staff are moving in while the retreat center staff are working from home. The contract with the Spokane Regional Health District states that the retreat center will be used as a quarantine site until the end of December, at which point the agreement will go to a month-to-month basis depending on the needs of the community, Pallardy said.

“Nobody knows what the fall or winter is going to be like with COVID and what pressures it’s going to put on our community,” he said. Pallardy said the facility could host families with children who are quarantining together, and would be open to people of all religions. He added that the retreat center, though serving a different purpose, will still be considered a ministry operating under the direction of Bishop Daly and the Diocese of Spokane.

Ultimately, Pallardy said the plan was providential in that it allowed the retreat center to continue operating for future use and it allowed the center to be used to help those most immediately in need. “To help our community and help the most vulnerable during this pandemic to heal is a godsend.”