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Prisoners in Rome thank Francis for ‘making sure we’re not forgotten’

March 31, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Rome, Italy, Mar 31, 2018 / 01:40 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis’ Holy Thursday Mass at a prison in Rome was more than just another event for the inmates who participated – it was a sign that while invisible to the world outside, they had not been forgotten.

“Yesterday is a moment that I think is going to resonate through the prison for at least the whole next entire year. I think it’s a moment that touched every single guard and every single prisoner who was there,” seminarian Alex Nevitt told CNA March 30.

A seminarian in his third year of theology studying at the Pontifical North American College, Nevitt does prison ministry at Rome’s Regina Coeli prison, where Pope Francis celebrated yesterday’s Mass of the Lord’s Supper for Holy Thursday.

The pope washed the feet of 12 inmates and visited the infirmary, as well as “Section VIII” of the facility, where prisoners who have committed serious crimes or who have certain mental illness live.

After the pope’s Mass, which commemorated the night Jesus himself was arrested, Nevitt said many of the inmates were moved, because “this is their lived experience that they know.”

“These are men that are easily forgotten,” he said, noting that at one point a representative from the prison spoke to the pope and thanked him “for making sure we’re not forgotten.”

“Sometimes it’s very easy to forget those who are in prison because we don’t see them,” Nevitt said, explaining that as seminarians, “it’s a privilege” to serve the inmates because it helps them to better understand “where the fringes of society are.”

Nevitt, who is from the Diocese of Patterson, NJ, has been working in the prison apostolate for two and a half years. He is in charge of the other eight seminarians who are involved in the ministry, five of whom are currently working inside the prison, and three of whom will start in September when they finish training.

As part of their ministry, the seminarians lead bible studies and catechesis. They work most directly with English-speaking inmates, the majority of whom are migrants from Africa. Since the prison does not provide a list of English-speakers, the seminarians will often walk around looking for people.

The people they work with, Nevitt said, are there for a variety of reasons – anything from illegal immigration to petty street crimes, such as selling merchandise like toys or purses on the street illegally.

Although there are not many life sentences, they actual time a person has to spend in prison is not well-defined, Nevitt said, explaining that some people are from Europe or have gained Italian citizenship legally, but have no family, making it harder to access bail or be released without a support system.

“You hear some backstories of prisoners who don’t want to write back home because they’re ashamed of being in prison,” he said. “So I think the pope’s message of forgiveness probably spoke very much to those types of prisoners, to not be ashamed, and they can be forgiven and move forward.”

A total of three popes have visited Regina Coeli, the most recent being St. John Paul II in 2000. Pope Francis’ visit meant a lot, Nevitt said.

When people heard that the pope was coming, they “were extremely excited…Regardless of whatever religion they were from, [they] were excited that the pope was coming, so there was a huge amount of energy in the prison for it.”

During the Mass, the pope washed the feet of 12 prisoners from different religions – including Catholics, Muslims, an Orthodox Christian and a Buddhist. The inmates were from various countries, including the Philippines, Nigeria, Colombia, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Moldova, and Italy.

Nevitt said they work with a many non-Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, in their bible studies. At one point they had prepared a man for baptism, and after being transferred to another prison, he came into the Catholic Church.

Another of these non-Catholics is a Nigerian man named Oladipupo, who has been in their bible study for two years and whose feet the pope washed on Holy Thursday.

Oladipupo is a Pentecostal Christian, but has come to the bible study regularly, and even wrote a letter to Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Liturgy and the Discipline of the Sacraments, after reading Sarah’s recent book “God or Nothing.” And he got a response back.

“We’re hoping that Oladipupo will soon be called to the Catholic faith once he’s ready for it,” Nevitt said, explaining that after yesterday’s liturgy, he spoke to Oladipupo, who was amazed to see “the humanity of the pope, to see this man who is the leader of the Catholic Church in such a human way.”

Similarly, Nevitt said he also spoke with a Muslim man after the Holy Thursday Mass, though he didn’t know the man was a Muslim at the time. The man had been so moved by the liturgy that he had wanted to receive communion, and is now going to start coming to the bible study led by the seminarians.

Many people were moved by the pope’s homily Mass, Nevitt said, during which Francis emphasized forgiveness, condemned the death penalty, and told prisoners that Jesus would never abandon them, but would “take a chance” on them.

“Throughout the whole homily everyone was quite captivated at every word the pope was saying, and you could see even from a couple of the guards who were standing around me, there were a lot of head nods,” Nevitt said.

The space itself was very intimate, he said, noting that the rotunda where the Mass took place was small and only a limited number of guards and prisoners were able to sit inside the area, while the rest watched from different wings.

“There were certain moments, especially when the pope was kneeling down to wash the prisoners’ feet, you could see people crying,” Nevitt said. “There was a very humanness to seeing the pope kneeling down at his age, sometimes he would have difficulty…getting back up, and people [were] just crying at his example of humble leadership.”



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At Stations of the Cross, Pope asks for grace to be ashamed of our sins

March 30, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Vatican City, Mar 30, 2018 / 02:38 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- During his annual Good Friday Via Crucis at the Colosseum, Pope Francis made a heartfelt prayer asking God to give Christians the grace to be ashamed of their sins, to repent and beg for mercy, and to have hope that his love is stronger than death.

“Before your supreme love, shame pervades us for having left you alone to suffer for our sins…shame for having chosen Barabbas and not you, power and not you, appearance and not you, the god of money and not you, worldliness and not eternity,” the Pope said in his March 30 prayer.

Christians also feel shame for all the people, including some clergy, who “allowed themselves be deceived by ambition and vainglory, losing sight of their dignity and first love,” and those who have left future generations a world “fractured by divisions and wars” and “consumed by selfishness.”

Above all, Christians are ashamed “for having lost a sense of shame,” he said, and asked the Lord to “always grant us the grace of holy shame!”

Pope Francis presided over the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday at the Colosseum – an ancient practice which dates back to the pontificate of Benedict XIV, who died in 1758. After a pause, the tradition was revived by Bl. Pope Paul VI in 1964, and under St. John Paul II it became known globally through television.

Each year the pope personally chooses someone to write the meditations for the stations. This year he asked a group of Italian high school students to write the meditations, guided by religion teacher Andrea Monda.

The meditations reflected on different themes, such as compassion, Jesus’ humanity, man’s dignity, fear of suffering, modern sensitivity to anything considered offensive, the surprises God gives and the knowledge that as Christians, we are never alone.

While in the past, the pope himself used to carry the cross from station to station, it is now carried by individuals and families. This year cross-bearers included Archbishop Angelo Donatis, the Vicar of Rome, a family of five from Syria, Dominican religious sisters from Iraq and friars from the Holy Land, among others.

In his prayer at the end of the Via Crucis, Pope Francis said that as Christians contemplate Jesus’ bloody death, they look to him with a gaze full of repentance, “which before your eloquent silence, begs for your mercy.”

This repentance, he said, “springs from the certainty that only you can save us from evil, only you can heal us from our leprosy of hate, selfishness, pride, greed, revenge and idolatry.

“Only you can embrace us by restoring our dignity as your children and rejoicing for our return home, our return to life,” he said, adding that this repentance also comes from being aware of one’s smallness and vanity, and from allowing oneself to be moved by God’s “powerful invitation to convert.”

It is the repentance of David, “who from the abyss of his suffering finds in you his only strength,” and
the repentance of Peter, “who when his eyes met yours, wept bitterly for having denied you.”

“Lord Jesus, always grant us the grace of holy repentance,” he said, but noted that despite man’s sinfulness, in front of God’s majesty “the spark of hope is lit in the darkness of our despair, because we know that your only measure for loving us is to love us without measure.”

This hope, he said, is that God’s message will continue to inspire people today with the knowledge that good and forgiveness overcome evil and the desire for revenge, and that a “brotherly embrace” can dispel “hostility and fear of the other.”

It is also a hope that Christ’s sacrifice would continue to emanate the “fragrance of divine love” that touches the young people who consecrate their lives to God, and that missionaries would continue “to challenge the slumbering consciousness of humanity,” by risking their lives to serve the poor, invisible, exploited and forgotten.

Francis said this is also a hope that the Church, which is holy and yet made up of sinners, “may continue, still today, despite all attempts to discredit it, to be a light that illuminates, encourages, uplifts and bears witness to your unlimited love for humanity.”

He prayed that the Church would be “a model of selflessness, an ark of salvation, and a source of certainty and truth.”

“Lord Jesus, always grant us the grace of holy hope!” he said, and asked Jesus to help Christians “strip ourselves of the arrogance of the unrepentant thief to your left, of the short-sighted and the corrupt” and those who saw in Jesus “another chance to put one’s own fault on others, even God.”

Closing his prayer, Francis asked Jesus to help Christians identify instead “with the good thief who looks to you with eyes full of shame, repentance and hope.”

With these eyes, the good thief “saw divine victory in your apparent defeat and knelt before your mercy, honestly stealing his way into heaven.”


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How American seminarians in Rome celebrate Holy Week

March 30, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Rome, Italy, Mar 30, 2018 / 12:35 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- For American seminarians at the Pontifical North American college in Rome, Holy Week liturgies take on new life and dimension, as the history of ancient traditions comes alive through the city’s remembrance of Christ’s Passion and death.

The seminarians alternate each year between having Holy Week liturgical celebrations “in house,” or having the week free to celebrate wherever they wish.

This year is an in-house year, meaning all liturgies related to Holy Week, beginning with Palm Sunday through the Easter Vigil Saturday night, are celebrated in the seminary chapel with seminarians, deacons and priests carrying out the key roles including serving, singing and chanting the Gospels.

Justin Boff, a seminarian from the Archdiocese of Baltimore in his third year of theology at the NAC, said the ambiance of the seminary during the in-house years takes on a notably calm dynamic, as the frenzied rush of coursework and exams gives way to a slower, more prayerful pace focused on the liturgy.

“We’re really blessed here to have so many resources to be able to pull from and to be able to put together really, really nice liturgies with all the smells and bells and those sorts of things,” he told CNA, adding that the NAC is “a privileged place” with few distractions from entering into the meaning of the week’s events.

As far as the run-down of the schedule for this week, after Palm Sunday Mass March 25, seminarians have largely been focused on prayer and preparing for the major liturgies.

To kick off the Triduum, seminarians on Wednesday went on the historic “church walk” started by Saint Philip Neri in the late 16th century. On Wednesday of every Holy Week, Neri would set out with his companions on foot to visit each of the four major basilicas in Rome, as well as the three minor basilicas, stopping at each for a time of prayer.

Seminarians at the NAC have kept the tradition as part of their wider observance of the ancient “Roman stational liturgy,” in which Mass is celebrated at 7 a.m. at a different Roman parish each of the 40 days during Lent, beginning Ash Wednesday and ending the Wednesday of Holy Week.

At the end of Lent, the final station Mass is typically celebrated at the papal basilica of St. Mary Major, and after this Mass seminarians and other pilgrims will set off on the seven-church walk, finishing in the evening.

For Holy Thursday at the NAC, there was the usual Mass of the Lord’s Supper, celebrated by Cardinal Edwin O’Brien. Afterward, seminarians were welcome to go out and join the hundreds of other people in Rome praying at different chapels of repose throughout the city.

After Mass is celebrated on Holy Thursday, the Eucharist is removed from the tabernacle of churches as a sign that Jesus has been taken away, and placed in a side chapel where faithful can stay to pray, sometimes all night depending on the parish.

In Rome, locals, priests, pilgrims from abroad, and members of the Curia all turn out in droves for the event, stopping to pray at different churches around the city as a way of accompanying Jesus the night before his crucifixion and death.

“It’s really an impressive sight,” Boff said, explaining that most seminarians go out for this event, and are able to take students and peers from their apostolates along with them.

“So it’s a lot of religion these weeks, but it’s a lot of fun. You really get to see the universal Church and the local Church here in Rome, which is just beautiful.”

On Good Friday, the Veneration of the Cross service at the NAC will be celebrated at 3 p.m. by the college rector, Fr. Peter Harman. The Easter vigil Saturday night this year will be celebrated by Cardinal James Harvey. Events for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum will close Sunday morning, with Mass and evening prayer later in the afternoon.

Apart from the main liturgies, there has been daily morning prayer and Mass, and lots of preparation and rehearsals for the major events. Boff, who is playing the organ during the celebrations, has had a particularly busy week practicing with the 40-member seminary choir.

“It’s really not that much playing in the end as far as the Triduum goes, because the organ is totally silent from the Gloria on Holy Thursday to the Gloria on the Easter Vigil,” he said. “So the organ goes into the tomb a bit with the Lord.”

But the music at the vigil has to be “very triumphant and joyful,” which takes a lot of preparation to make sure the music matches the magnitude of the celebration, he said.

Deacon Colin Jones, who is from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and is in his fourth year of theology at the NAC, said that for him, the station churches have played a major role in how he has lived Lent.

Though attending all the station Masses, some of which are an hour-long walk to get to, is not required, Jones said this year he tried to make it to as many as possible.

“It’s nice to be reminded about how many beautiful churches there are in the city and all the different parts of the city and a different, unique walk every morning,” he said, explaining that on any given day there are usually around 20-30 seminarians at the Masses in addition to the pilgrims and locals who come.

Jones said the long walk to get to some of the churches is “demanding,” but it allows time for prayer, and “it’s nice to have the morning for prayer and to have this pilgrimage…with our Lord through Lent.”

The churches and readings are generally the same for every year, and some were selected based on historical significance, so after awhile, he said, “the readings and the church become intertwined,” and it helps give context to the scripture passage being read.

Jones will also be chanting the part of Christ in the Gospel narrative of Jesus Passion on Good Friday, which is taken from the Gospel of John.

While the Palm Sunday Gospel reading was chanted by three priests, the Good Friday Gospel narrative will be chanted by three deacons, including Jones, who said the opportunity and the hours of practice are “a pretty big blessing, very powerful and very moving.”

Though it’s been hard to get the right pitch and tempo for the lines, Jones said being able to sing the lines of Jesus has helped him to go deeper into the events of Holy Week, specifically Jesus’ crucifixion and death.

“It just hits you in a different way and strikes more deeply,” he said. “Now we’ve sung through it a dozen times or so, so the words just get deeper every time, and you let them resonate a little bit more. And the more comfortable we become with it…we’re able to make it more of a prayer and those lines really hit you.”

Jones, who will be ordained a priest May 26, in just under a month, said he hopes that when he has a parish, he is able to impart to his parishioners the excitement and depth he’s gained about Holy Week from living and celebrating the liturgies in Rome.

And while it’s nice to have time to celebrate Holy Week elsewhere or participate in papal liturgies, Jones said he prefers the in-house years, because “you can enjoy more of a restful environment and enjoy hanging out with the guys.”

There are also more opportunities for prayer, he said, adding that “even the preparations are kind of exciting, there’s a certain excitement that’s in the house, so that’s definitely fun having all of that here this week.”



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For Christians in Syria, Holy Week is a time for renewing faith

March 30, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Homs, Syria, Mar 30, 2018 / 12:11 pm (ACI Prensa).- Christians in Syria have suffered greatly in recent years. Between the Syrian civil war and ISIS occupation, many have lost their homes, their jobs, and many of their material possessions.

“But they have not lost their faith, despite everything,” said Josué Villalón, a journalist working for Aid to the Church in Need in Spain, who recently visited some of the projects supported by pontifical foundation in Syria.

“Each person and each family with whom we spoke expressed to us that right now what gives them hope and sustains them is to be able to celebrate the Eucharist – because even though they have lost everything material, they still have Jesus Christ,” he told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish language sister agency.

Aid to the Church in Need is working to help thousands of those displaced by the war and persecution to return to their homes. The agency’s Spanish branch contributes more than 600,000 euros annually to help in reconstruction efforts and continuing education for young people.

One of the moments that most impressed Villalón was his visit to the Syrian Catholic cathedral in the city of Homs, where hundreds of Christians were praying the Way of the Cross.

“Praying the Way of the Cross is a very strong tradition in Syria and the Middle East. It’s always been a focal point for Christians for their Lenten and Holy Week [devotions], ” he said.

On Good Friday, a procession is planned through the streets of the old city of Homs with a cross and various icons of the Virgin Mary.

“Now more than ever, the Way of the Cross is a very important prayer,” said Villalón, because the Christian population of Syria, “with everything they have suffered during these years of war, and everything they are still suffering, embodies a way of the cross. And so this prayer has even more meaning for them.”

Many of those living in the country today have beautiful testimonies, he continued.

“What is so powerful is that Christians in Syria today are embodying in their own lives the Gospel and the mystery of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus,” he said, adding that he saw in them reflections of Christ carrying his cross, and of Veronica and Simon of Cyrene offering help.

Villalón pointed out some the first Christians were from Syria.

“Centuries before Islam came, there were Christians there, and it was in Antioch that the followers of Christ were first called Christians,” he said. “The amount of historical and documentary sources is enormous there. For example, it was in Damascus that Saint Paul received Jesus’ call to conversion.”

In addition to their 2,000-year presence in the region, Christians in Syria and the Middle East continue to “contribute a number of irreplaceable values” such as “charity, freedom, forgiveness, and hope,” said Villalón.

“Christians are the only ones that speak about all these things, and so their presence is very important here.”