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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.”



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On Good Friday, papal preacher tells youth to run toward love of Christ

March 30, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Vatican City, Mar 30, 2018 / 10:06 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Papal preacher Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa dedicated his Good Friday homily to young people, comparing them to the apostle John and urging them to have the courage to go in the opposite direction of the selfishness of the world, running instead toward the sacrificial love of Jesus on the cross.

In his March 30 homily, Cantalamessa said modern society has come “under the dominion of Satan and sin,” and has been taken over by what St. Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians called the “spirit of the air.”

Cantalamessa said the phrase takes on a literal meaning today, because this spirit “spreads itself in infinite ways electronically through airwaves,” and plays a major role in shaping public opinion.

“To act, think or speak against this spirit is regarded as non-sensical or even as wrong and criminal,” he said, adding that the best way to ensure that one has not conformed to this world is by going in the opposite direction, walking toward suffering, and toward “the poor and those at the lowest level of society,” rather than away from them.

“Blending in with this world of suffering and marginalization is, paradoxically, the best way of ‘separating’ ourselves from the world because it means going in the direction from which the world flees as much as it can. It means separating ourselves from the very principle that rules the world, self-centeredness,” he said.

To drive his point home, Cantalamessa quoted British poet T.S. Eliot, saying “in a world of fugitives / The person taking the opposite direction / Will appear to run away.”

“Dear young Christians, if you will allow an old man like John to address you directly, I would exhort you: be those who take the opposite direction! Have the courage to go against the stream,” he said, adding that “the opposite direction for us is not a place but a person; it is Jesus, our friend and redeemer.”

Fr. Cantalamessa is the official papal preacher. He offers meditations to the pope and members of the Curia on Fridays during Advent and Lent, and he preaches the homily for the Good Friday veneration liturgy.

After the chanting of the Gospel during the liturgy for the Lord’s Passion in St. Peter’s Basilica, presided over by Pope Francis, Cantalamessa in his homily reflected on why the Church places such a strong emphasis on the cross of Christ.

He said that according to one theory, it could be because God reveals himself “sub contraria specie,” meaning in a form contrary to what he actually is: “he reveals his power in weakness, his wisdom in foolishness, his riches in poverty.”

However, this logic does not apply to the cross, he said, because on the cross God reveals himself “as he really is, in his most intimate and truest reality.” And this reality, he said, is that “God is love…oblative love, a love that consists in self-giving, and only on the cross does God’s infinite capacity for self-gift manifest the length to which it will go.”

With a Synod of Bishops dedicated to youth on the schedule for this October, Cantalamessa said the presence of St. John with Jesus on Calvary holds special significance, since it is believed that the evangelist joined Jesus when he was still a young man.

Noting how John is often referred to in scripture as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” the papal preacher said this was a real and personal experience of “falling in love” with the Lord that can be seen from the fact that the whole of John’s Gospel focuses on the person of Jesus, rather than his works and teaching.
Cantalamessa said St. John was almost certainly one of the two disciples of John the Baptist who, when Jesus passed them on the beach, followed him and spent the day with him. He noted how when they asked Jesus where he was staying, “it was about the tenth hour.”

“That hour decided the course of John’s life, and he never forgot it,” Cantalamessa said, and stressed the importance of helping young people today understand not only what God and the Church expect of them and what they can offer to the Church and to society, but also to help youth understand what Jesus himself can offer to them.

He pointed to how John described his experience with Jesus as the “fullness of joy” and an “abundant life,” and urged members of the Church to accept Francis’ invitation in Evangelii Gaudium to “a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them.”

“I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord,” he said, continuing to quote Francis.

Cantalamessa said it is possible to encounter Christ today because He is risen and alive, and that after this personal encounter takes place, “everything is possible.”

Speaking directly to youth, the papal preacher said they have a special mission “to rescue human love from the tragic drift in which it had ended up: love that is no longer a gift of self but only the possession – often violent and tyrannical – of another.”

Pointing to the self-sacrificial “agape” love shown by Jesus on the cross and the desiring, “eros” love that “welcomes, that pursues, that desires, and that finds joy in being loved in return,” Cantalamessa said these two types of love are linked, and cannot be separated from each other.

God both desires man and exercises charity toward him, he said, explaining that learning how to love like God “is not a question of renouncing the joys of love, attraction, and ‘eros,’ but of knowing how to unite ‘eros’ and ‘agape’ in the desire for another, the ability to give oneself to the other.”

Learning how to do this will not happen “in one day,” he said, and told youth to start preparing themselves now to give themselves either to another person in marriage, or to God in a consecrated vocation.

This preparation, he said, can begin now with something as simple as a smile or a gift of one’s time or service in one’s family, parish or volunteer work, which “so many of you are already quietly doing.”



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Cardinal Pell’s court hearing weighs evidence for abuse allegations

March 29, 2018 CNA Daily News 2

Melbourne, Australia, Mar 29, 2018 / 11:43 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A hearing will that will decide whether Cardinal George Pell will go on trial for alleged abuse came to a conclusion Thursday after Pell’s attorney launched a vigorous defense and sought to cast doubt on the path from the first police investigations through the filing of legal charges.

Pell’s defense lawyer Robert Richter, 72, engaged in cross-examination of the charges against his client, with Victoria Police Crime Command’s head of serious crime, Paul Sheridan, taking the stand in court.

The Victoria Police launched a special operation in 2013 to investigate Pell, “Operation Tethering.” Richter charged that at its launch, “it was an operation looking for a crime because no crime had been reported.”

Sheridan confirmed the effort had been launched in 2013 specifically to gather information on the cardinal. There was a search for complainants and no one came forward until more than a year after the investigation began.

The total number of charges are not public, but most abuse allegedly took place in the 1970s. An additional allegation concerned the cardinal’s time as Melbourne’s archbishop from 1996-2001. Cardinal Pell has said he is innocent. He currently heads the Holy See’s Secretariat for the Economy and is one of the nine cardinals advising Pope Francis.

The hearing in Melbourne Magistrates Court concluded Thursday after hearing testimony from 50 witnesses, including Pell’s accusers, CNN reports. The cardinal was present every day of the hearing.

Richter charged that the police operation investigating Pell was dormant for two years without any accusers, Australia’s ABC News reports. He contended that investigating officers pursued relatively “benign” allegations against the cardinal while putting more serious allegations against a nun and a teacher “on the back burner.”

Sheridan rejected this, saying there could be a better explanation, but he did not know why police did not pursue the other cases.

Pell’s attorney claimed that police made more in-depth inquiries into the cardinal due to “public and political pressure,” suggesting this was linked to the work of the Royal Commission investigating abuse.

Richter also said detectives investigating the cardinal failed to follow proper procedure in interviewing potential witnesses. Police made charges against the cardinal in relation to an alleged crime at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then interviewed choir members and personnel.

“How could this happen that no relevant inquiries were made with other relevant choir members … before the Cardinal was charged,” said Richter.

A search warrant executed in 2016 on several addresses in Melbourne failed to look for the cardinal’s diaries in the archives of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. This would have described the cardinal’s movements and possibly exonerate him, the defense attorney said.

The attorney also tried to attack the credibility of the prosecution, saying there was no supporting evidence or witnesses behind accusers’ claims of abuse. He claimed that some alleged abuse victims had been treated in psychiatric hospitals or had been allegedly abused by other clergy.

At one point the attorney attacked the credibility of the magistrate, Belinda Wallington. During a discussion about the precise date the cardinal allegedly abused a victim, the magistrate did not accept a date he said was a fact. He then applied for her to be disqualified on the grounds of “biased view of the  evidence.”

The magistrate immediately responded “Your application is refused.”
Cardinal Pell had asked for police statements before his October 2016 interview with police. The request was refused, but he did receive a summary of allegations including dates and locations.

The cardinal is excused from an April 17 hearing but will return to court for a final decision at some point in the future. He will spend Holy Week at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Sydney.

After the charges against Pell were announced, he was granted leave from his post by Pope Francis in order to return to Australia for the trial.

Detectives had secretly planned to arrest Cardinal Pell at a November 2015 Royal Commission hearing in Melbourne. Ten days before the hearing, the cardinal said he could not travel for health reasons. He gave testimony by video from Rome in March 2016.

Richter objected that it would have been illegal to arrest Pell simply to question him.

On March 2, 2018 prosecutors dropped a key abuse charge after the complainant passed away in January. The accuser, Damian Dignan, was joined by another classmate who in 2016 alleged that Pell engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior when they were minors, both students at St. Alipius school in Ballarat, decades before.

Defense attorney Ruth Shann argued that Dignan was not credible,  since his claim came nearly 40 years after the alleged abuse and after reading about other cases in newspapers. She said his complaint had a “domino effect” leading to other people contacting police.


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For former inmates, returning to society comes with challenges

March 29, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Washington D.C., Mar 29, 2018 / 04:18 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- For the fourth time in his pontificate, Pope Francis will wash the feet of inmates at a prison on Holy Thursday this year.

The pope, who will celebrate the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the Regina Coeli prison in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, has previously spoken of the importance of reintegrating former prisoners back into society.

In the United States, 65 million people have a criminal record, which can limit access to employment, housing, and education, according to James Ackerman, the president and CEO of Prison Fellowship, the nation’s largest Christian ministry serving prisoners.

“Nearly 700,000 men and women will return to our communities this year alone. Thus, it is smart…for us to implement a more restorative approach for to criminal justice, re-entry, and, in particular, employment for people with a criminal record,” said Ackeman at a prison reform panel at the National Press Club on March 28.

Lily Gonzalez was one of the panelists at the “Second Chances: Removing Barriers to Returning Citizens” event. She shared the difficulties she faced in pursuing an education after being released from prison, in which she spent extensive time in solitary confinement.

Homeboy Industries, a ministry founded by a Jesuit priest, Father Greg Boyle, helped her through their “pathways to college program.”

“It really did take a village,” reflected Gonzalez, who said that the generosity of others helped her pay for her books and parking. However, she continued to face obstacles due to her criminal record after she graduated from college.

“I had a bachelor degree and no one wanted to hire me,” she said.

This barrier to employment and other necessities to reintegrate into society can often feel like a “second prison” after one has served their time, according to Ackerman. A conviction can become a life sentence to joblessness, which can increase the likelihood of future arrests.

This issue has led several U.S. states pass laws that “Ban the Box,” which prevents inquiries about someone’s criminal record on initial job applications, postponing the inquiries until later in the application process.

“I think that when you have a box on the application you are asking the person, ‘Tell me about the worst thing that you have ever done in your life,’ and then as a recruiter I’m going to judge you based on that. I wouldn’t ask anyone that, and I don’t need to know that at that point in the process,” said a human resources executive with Butterball Farms, Bonnie Mroczek.

She shared the positive results Butterball has seen hiring former inmates.

“We’ve been hiring returning citizens for 23 years. We’ve had tons of success with it and we are sharing information with other companies about the success that we’ve had,” she said.

“In states and localities where there has been an evaluation of Ban the Box programs, we see that there is about a 40% increase in people with records getting hired as a result of simply postponing an inquiry about their record,” added Judy Conti, who is the federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.

“If you haven’t met me, you haven’t had a chance to talk to me and get to know who I am,” said Dennis Avila, one of the former prisoners who shared his story.

“I have convictions that involve drugs and firearms … If you just look at some of the worst things that I have done, you would just think that I was this crazy person, which isn’t true at all …coming out of prison and trying to get a job to sustain me and my family was really really hard.”

Avila had a son when he was convicted, and he was not alone in that fact. There are 2.7 million children in the U.S. with a parent in prison, according to Prison Fellowship.

Avila eventually went on to found his own nonprofit organization that uses music to positively impact people from challenging backgrounds and circumstances.

“We are proud that today a full 25% of our field staff are people who were once caught up in the cycle of crime and incarceration, but today are now part of the cycle of renewal,” shared the CEO of Christian Prison Fellowship, who spoke of the importance of engaging prisoners in “a dignified manner and help them to become healthier and more productive citizens.”

Prison Fellowship is currently active in 428 prisons across the country. According to their website, the ministry is “founded on the conviction that all people are created in God’s image and that no life is beyond God’s reach. As Christians, we believe that Jesus – Himself brought to trial, executed, buried, and brought to life again – offers hope, healing, and a new purpose for each life. He can make even the most broken people and situations whole again.”

The fellowship was founded in 1976 by Charles Colson in 1976 after he served seven months prison for his involvement in Watergate as a former aid to President Richard Nixon.

Colson rediscovered his faith during his time in prison. In a book entitled “Loving God: The Cost of Being a Christian,” Colson wrote the following about founding a prison ministry that has impacted the lives of thousands of people:

“My life of success was not what made this morning so glorious — all my achievements meant nothing in God’s economy. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure — that I was an ex-convict. My greatest humiliation — being sent to prison — was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life; He chose the one thing in which I could not glory for His glory.”