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Papal agency raises funds to help Christians remain in the Middle East

May 25, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Ottawa, Canada, May 25, 2018 / 03:32 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- The Catholic Near East Welfare Association in Canada is launching a fundraising campaign to help Christians in the Middle East remain in their homelands.

The fundraising campaign launched May 16 is known as “Christians Can’t Survive Without You”.

“This campaign’s very important purpose is to tell Canadian Catholics that they should care about the presence of Christians in the Middle East, because they are the leaven of peace in the Middle East,” Carl Hétu, CNEWA Canada‘s executive director, told The Catholic Register.

“If we turn our backs on what’s happening in the Middle East, particularly to the Christians of the Middle East, then we’re turning our back on ourselves as Christians,” he added.

Since the Iraq War which began in 2003, the number of Christians in the Middle East has plummeted. In addition to conflict in Iraq, the Syrian Civil War has also pushed many Christians out, as have economic pressure, discrimination, and persecution.

CNEWA noted that “Over the past 15 years, over 2.5 million Middle East Christians have been forced out of their homes. They desperately need your help.”

“We are one body in Christ united with Christians in the Middle East. Their struggles are our struggles and it is our responsibility to help our brothers and sisters there to keep our faith alive,” the agency stated.

In recent years, CNEWA has worked to set up schools, nurseries, and medical clinics in Iraq to serve Christians who were displaced by the Islamic State. It also supports St. Peter Patriarchal Seminary in Erbil.

CNEWA was founded in 1926 to give pastoral and humanitarian support to the Middle East, Northeast Africa, India, and Eastern Europe. An agency of the Vatican, the group supports the Eastern Catholic Churches.

Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, board president of CNEWA Canada, said that an attack on Middle East Christians “is an attack on the values Christians promote worldwide. To lose Christianity in the region would be a devastating loss.”

Maronite Patriarch of Antioch Bechara Boutros Rai said last year at the In Defense of Christians summit that “The conflicts that have beset the Middle East have driven out millions of busy citizens, including so many Christians, and with their exodus, our region becomes more extreme, more dangerous to the outside world.

Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch John X Yazigi said, “We as Christians in the Middle East: we are going to remain and stay there. We are not strangers in that part of the world: we are people of light and of truth.”


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Bishops urge Nicaraguan president to investigate violence against protestors

May 24, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Managua, Nicaragua, May 24, 2018 / 05:10 pm (ACI Prensa).- Nicaragua’s bishops urged president Daniel Ortega Tuesday to comply with a recommendation that he investigate April’s violence in order to facilitate talks between the opposition and his government.

The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference’s May 22 letter encouraged Ortega to create “a mechanism of international investigation of the acts of violence which occurred, with guarantees of autonomy and independence to ensure the right to the truth and duly identify those responsible.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visited Nicaragua May 17-21 to document human rights violations in four cities and to issue recommendations.

The commission found that since protests began April 18, there were at least 76 deaths and 868 injured, the vast majority “in the context of the protests.” Five of those injured “remain in the hospital in critical condition.” In addition, “438 people were arrested, including students, civilians, men and women human rights advocates and journalists.”

A priest of the Diocese of Matagalpa was wounded by shrapnel May 15 while trying to separate protestors and security forces, the AP reported.

In their letter the bishops stated that “only by fulfilling this recommendation of the IACHR” will the stakeholders be able “to continue making progress toward a good outcome to the national dialogue.”

They also stressed that agreeing to this “becomes imperative for the well being of the nation” and so that the talks produce “fruitful results of truth, justice, freedom and true and lasting peace for all Nicaraguans.”

Finally, the bishops offered their disposition “to collaborate in the path to peace, with justice.”  

“We respectfully greet you, imploring the light of the Holy Spirit for you and the intercession of the Virgin Mary so that you can make the best decisions,” they concluded.

On the same day, May 22, the bishop’s conference charged in a statement that bishops and priests are being discredited by attacks orchestrated by the government and that they have been receiving death threats through “anonymous social media” posts.

The bishops stated that Nicaragua is currently  going through “one of the worst crises in its history after the blatant crackdown by the government, which is trying to evade its responsibility as the main actor in the various attacks.”

Talks to overcome several weeks of anti-government protests and riots in Nicaragua which have been met harshly by security forces began May 16 under the mediation of the Catholic Church.

Protests began April 18 after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests have only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

Demonstrators have called for freedom of expression, an end to violent repression, and for Ortega to step down from office. The Church in the country was quick to acknowledge the protestors’ complaints.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

He was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.


This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.


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Church in Peru launches collection to help Venezuelan refugees

May 23, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Lima, Peru, May 23, 2018 / 11:01 pm (ACI Prensa).- The bishops of Peru have launched a campaign to collect funds to provide for the basic needs of Venezuelan refugees living in the country.

The Peruvian bishops’ conference announced the collection will take place June 3, during the day’s scheduled Masses.

According to Caritas International, about four million people have left Venezuela due to the grave economic crisis marked by a major shortage of food and medicine under the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro, the president of the country since 2013. Maduro was re-elected May 20 in questionable elections.

Maduro is the hand-picked successor of socialist president Hugo Chavez.

The main destination of the millions of refugees is Colombia, along with other countries such as Peru, Chile, and Argentina.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies stated that the average Venezuelan lost about 24 pounds in 2017, in a population where almost 90 percent live below the poverty line.

The lack of medicine has caused an resurgence of diphtheria and an increase in measles and malaria, diseases that had almost been eradicated in Venezuela.

Cases of Malaria have skyrocketed while measles has claimed the lives of 26 children just in the Orinoco Delta area.

Venezuela closed 2017 with an inflation rate of 2,616 percent and a drop in Gross National Product of 15 percent. The International Monetary Fund forecasts inflation at 14,000 percent for 2018 which would be the highest index of inflation among emerging markets for this year and the next.


This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.


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Clerical abuse arose from misuse of authority, Chilean priest says

May 23, 2018 CNA Daily News 1

Santiago, Chile, May 23, 2018 / 12:32 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- One of the Chilean priests affected by the abuses of Fr. Fernando Karadima who will meet with Pope Francis in June said Wednesday that such abuses stemmed from misuse of authority.

Fr. Francisco Javier Astaburuaga Ossa accompanied one of Karadima’s victims, Juan Carlos Cruz, for nearly 20 years before Cruz went public with his suffering.

He is among the group of nine people who will visit Pope Francis June 1-3, and was one of three priests who spoke at a May 23 press conference in Santiago.

Astaburuaga said it is clear that Karadima’s abuses, particularly the abuse of conscience, “started from a poor use of authority … he violated personal freedom, he restricted [his victims] and conditioned them.”

“This is the mark of an abuse,” he said, explaining that this, as well as the structural problems which allowed the crisis to happen in the first place, is something that will likely come up in their discussions with the pope.

Astaburuaga was joined at the Vatican press conference by  Fr. Alejandro Vial Amunátegui and  Fr. Eugenio de la Fuente Lora.

Six other people will also be present at the June meeting with Francis; all of them are either victims of Karadima’s abuse of power, conscience, or sexuality, or have helped to accompany the victims. Two of the other priests who will meet with the pope are Fr. Javier Barros Bascuñán and Fr. Sergio Cobo Montalba; the remaining four participants have chosen not to go public.

The meeting is part of an effort to respond to Chile’s clerical sex abuse crisis, and follows an similar encounter at the Vatican in April among three more of Karadima’s victims: Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and Andres Murillo.

“There was a problem, a crisis in the Chilean Church, everyone can see it,” de la Fuente said, explaining that in his view, the process Pope Francis has begun with these meetings “is a very lucid one and we are thankful.”

The three priests said the Roman Pontiff is moving in the right direction, and that their upcoming visit is a sign of hope and a chance to begin repairing the harm done to the Church in Chile. They also noted their joy at the consolation of receiving an invitation from the pope.

The meeting will take place in a “spirit of collaboration” aimed at repairing “the damages done” to the Church in the scandal, Vial said.

Fr. de la Fuente commented that “The meeting itself gives a marvelous [opportunity] to share our personal experience with [Pope Francis], and from this lived experience … to propose solutions to solve this big problem,” of abuse and cover-up, which is largely a problem of power and the misuse of authority.

In a statement signed by Astaburuaga, Vial, de la Fuente, Barros, and Cobo, the priests voiced hope that their stories “can help give a voice to many others who have suffered abuse or who have accompanied people who have been abused.”

After presenting the statement, the priests noted the delicacy of the situation, and that the pope invited them so he could listen to them and give them a chance to share their personal experiences.

Fr. de la Fuente said the pope was clear in his original letter apologizing for having misjudged the situation, saying that the process of re-building the Church in Chile must happen “in short, medium and long term” phases.

Speaking of Cruz, Hamilton, and Murillo, Fr. de la Fuente voiced gratitude for “their testimonies, their courage and their friendship. They have helped the Church a lot.”

The solutions outlining a path forward for the Church in Chile have yet to be decided, he said, explaining that this is something they will discuss with Pope Francis.

Fr. Vial said that while they want to give a voice to victims of abuse, “each case of abuse is different. I could never pretend to represent someone who was abused in a different way and in a different context.”

One of the main goals of their meeting with the pope, he said, is to discuss how to “do as much as possible to avoid the existence of victims of abuse. For us it is very important to collaborate so that there are no more victims of abuse.”

In his comments, de la Fuente stressed that while abuse and pedophilia are problems not exclusive to the Church, they are more serious when they happen in an ecclesial environment “because it is a place of life called to give life and fullness.”

“There is a structure that creates this type of abuse,” he said, explaining that the Church “must be a house of healing.”

The goal is “to try to work at something so that the Church is what Jesus wanted it to be.”

Likewise, Vial stressed the need for pastors to be close to their flocks, and asked the press to be respectful of the communities most impacted by the crisis, “because they are communities, like the whole Church, which are going through a difficult time with a lot of suffering.”

The priests said that given the desire to maintain privacy and confidentiality, they do not plan to make any other public statements until after they return to Chile following their meeting with Pope Francis.

The Holy See press office had announced the group’s meeting with Francis May 22. The encounter was scheduled a month ago, and it was said that the pope “wants to demonstrate his closeness to abused priests, to accompany them in their pain and to listen to their valuable views to improve the current preventive measures and the fight against abuses in the Church.”

The nine Chileans will stay at the Vatican’s Santa Marta guesthouse. Pope Francis will say Mass for the group June 2, after which there will be a group meeting, followed by private conversations with the pope.

Karadima was convicted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2011 of abusing minors, and sentenced to a life of prayer and penance. He has not been sentenced by civil courts because of Chile’s statue of limitations.

A sacerdotal association which Karadima had led, the Priestly Union of the Sacred Heart, was suppressed within a year of his conviction.

Attention to Karadima’s abuse has heightened since the 2015 appointment of Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid to the Diocese of Osorno. Barros had been accused of covering up Karadima’s abuses.

Pope Francis initially defended Barros, saying he had received no evidence of the bishop’s guilt, and called accusations against him “calumny” during a trip to Chile in January. He later relented, and sent Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta to investigate the situation in Chile.

After receiving Scicluna’s report, Francis apologized, said that he had been seriously mistaken, and asked to meet the country’s bishops and more outspoken survivors in person.

He met with Chile’s bishops May 15-17. As a result, each of them tendered letters of resignation, which Pope Francis has yet to accept or reject. The pope also gave the bishops a letter chastising them for systemic cover-up of clerical abuse and calling them to institute deep changes.


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Mobile Mercy Shelter celebrates its first anniversary

May 21, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Concepción, Chile, May 21, 2018 / 07:00 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- A Catholic “Mobile Mercy Shelter” celebrated its first anniversary in service to the poor and homeless in the city of Concepción, Chile.

The modified bus is an outreach of the Archdiocese of  Concepción. Various organizations contributed to the effort from the design of the bus to its completely remodeled interior.

When launched in 2017, Archbishop Fernando Chomali told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish language sister agency, that “there are a lot of needy people, that’s true, but there are also a lot of people that want to help, who don’t want to be idle bystanders in life, but rather make a real commitment to those most in need.”

“The ideal would be that there would be no more need for this, that everyone would have a family where they could live in dignity, but unfortunately this has not happened yet, and so we have to assume our responsibility to work together in the name of Christ,” he said.

Volunteers receive training in tasks which “help Jesus through these people,” according to project coordinator  Gustave de Pennart. Four volunteers are required per night,  and include a social worker and a nurse’s aid.

The bus is usually stationed in Concepción’s main square and operates overnight Monday through Saturday. It has four beds, two bathrooms with showers, and offers food and clothing. It also has solar panels to light the bus at night.

To celebrate the May 15 anniversary, volunteers organized a dinner with the people that benefit from the mobile shelter. The event took place in front of Concepción’s cathedral, where attendees had a meal, sang “Happy Birthday mobile shelter!” and shared a cake.

So far the mobile shelter has provided 650 overnight stays and served more than 5,000 street people who for various reasons do not want to go to the traditional shelters.

This winter, the mobile shelter added flu shots to its services.

Although there are mobile showers in the United States, and Spain has mobile barber shops, organizers believe the “Mobile Mercy Shelter” is the first of its kind in the world. The project has received the formal blessing of Pope Francis.

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.


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Chilean bishop suspends 12 priests, apologizes for not acting sooner

May 21, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Rancagua, Chile, May 21, 2018 / 12:23 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- Over the weekend, Chilean Bishop Alejandro Goić Karmelić suspended several priests after allegations of sexual misconduct were raised against them. He apologized for not following up when the accusations were first brought to his attention.

“I would like to ask forgiveness for my actions in this case,” the bishop said in a May 19 statement.

Goić, who heads the diocese of Rancagua, said he “acted without the proper swiftness” when a woman came to him nearly a year ago with concerns regarding the conduct of Fr. Luis Rubio and other priests.

Goić’s apology came the day after a program detailing accusations against Rubio was aired on Chile’s TV13 channel, the same station that leaked Pope Francis’ 10-page letter to Chilean bishops chastising them for a systematic cover-up of clerical abuse and calling them to institute deep changes.

The program was aired May 18, the day after Goić returned from the May 15-17 meeting with Pope Francis. It focuses on the testimony of Eliza Fernandez, a youth minister in the parish of Paredones who approached the bishop last year with concerns about Fr. Rubio’s behavior, particularly with minors.

Rubio had been part of a priestly fraternity referred to as “La Familia,” several of whose members have been accused of sexual misconduct, including the abuse of minors.

“I do not know whether to call it a brotherhood, a sect, or a group of priests who have practices that do not conform to their status as clerics; and with respect to young people,” Fernandez said in the program, adding that the confraternity had shown an unnatural interest in youth who were ‘between 15 and 29 years old,’ and that some publicly joked about being homosexual.

In the program, Rubio admitted to sending nude photos of himself to a Facebook account he thought belonged to a 16-year-old named Pablo, but which was a fake profile Fernandez had set up to catch the priest.

“I’m not asking for saints, but for a person who is dignified,” Fernandez said in the program, adding that she cannot imagine how a priest would be able to hear her confession and then send naked photos to a minor via social media.

Having been approached by TV13 reporters after celebrating Mass May 12, Rubio in the footage admitted to sending the pictures, saying “it was my mistake, I acknowledge that,” and calling the act “a horrible shame.”

When asked if he would remain a priest, Rubio said “it’s a decision that I need to make in my conscience.” He said the day was one “of great sadness for me, and I regret what I have done…I recognize what I have done, that it is horrible, but I cannot say anything more.”

In a previous statement, aired on the program, Bishop Goić had said, “I did not study to be a detective, I studied to be a pastor.” He said that no one had come to him with a “formal accusation,” and that while Fernandez had reached out regarding personal concerns, she had not lodged an official complaint and had not given him any proof, so he could not investigate.

In his statement, Goić said he values the reporting done by TV13, “because they have delivered aspects that I did not know, and which have affected me greatly and caused me great suffering, as well as the community.”

The bishop said he had already submitted a formal complaint to Rancagua’s prosecutor, which contained background on Rubio from the program, and that he will send all the information they have available to the Holy See this week.

Goić also suspended several diocesan priests mentioned in the TV13 program, asking them to halt their ministry until a full investigation can be done.

“I deeply regret any action or situation that violates the values and principles that underpin our Catholic Church and I want to express my clear availability to collaborate in any type of procedure which derives from the knowledge of these facts,” he said.

He asked anyone with information about actions which “do not coincide with the priesthood” to inform their dioceses, and provided the email addresses for the diocese of Rancagua.

“I must admit that, personally, as a Christian and as a pastor, I find myself deeply affected by this difficult situation, which hurts and embarrasses me,” he said, and prayed that “the truth will be revealed, the whole truth, in these cases and in any other situation which threatens the Gospel of the love of Christ.”

Goić, along with every other active bishop in Chile, submitted a written resignation to Pope Francis Thursday, the last day of their meeting with Pope Francis.

The meeting was called by Pope Francis himself last month following an in-depth investigation of abuse cover-up by Chilean Church hierarchy. The investigation, carried out by Maltese Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Msgr. Jordi Bertomeu, resulted in a 2,300-page report, which has not been made public.

The investigation was initially centered around Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, appointed to the diocese in 2015 and accused by at least one victim of covering up abuses of Chilean priest Fernando Karadima.

In 2011, Karadima was convicted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of abusing minors and sentenced to a life of prayer and solitude. Allegations of cover-up were also made against three other bishops – Andrés Arteaga, Tomislav Koljatic and Horacio Valenzuela – whom Karadima’s victims accuse of knowing about Karadima’s crimes and failing to act.

Pope Francis initially defended Barros, saying he had received no evidence of the bishop’s guilt, and called accusations against him “calumny” during a trip to Chile in January. However, after receiving Scicluna’s report, Francis apologized, said that he had been seriously mistaken, and asked to meet the bishops and more outspoken survivors in person.

As of now, no decisions have been made regarding the bishops’ fate, and it will be up to Francis whether to accept or reject their resignations.


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Church-mediated dialogue to overcome Nicaraguan crisis begins

May 16, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Managua, Nicaragua, May 16, 2018 / 04:01 pm (ACI Prensa).- Talks to overcome several weeks of anti-government protests and riots in Nicaragua which have been met harshly by security forces began Wednesday under the mediation of the Catholic Church.

President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo, attended the dialogue May 16 at Our Lady of Fatima national seminary in Managua. Other stakeholders present included business owners, students, and farmers.

Protests began April 18 after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests have only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

Demonstrators have called for freedom of expression, an end to violent repression, and for Ortega to step down from office.

The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference issued a statement May 15 saying: “We hope that the dialogue will structurally address the issue of  the country’s institutions with the aim of paving the way for its democratization. Through the good will of the parties, attentively listening to one other, and the proposals to be made, we hope to reach important agreements which will translate into concrete decisions.”

The prelates asked that all sectors of society, including the government, “strive to maintain an atmosphere conducive to tolerance, respect and especially when peaceful demonstrations are held.”

The Church is acting as a mediator in the dialogue “after listening to the outcry of a large majority of society and conscious of the gravity of the situation we are undergoing in the country,” while acknowledging that “the circumstances for this dialogue are not the most suitable.”

Nicaragua’s bishops asked the faithful to “persevere in prayer so that the Lord may grant to us all, as we approach the feast of Pentecost, the assistance of the Holy Spirit ‘who leads us into all truth.’”

The Church in Nicaragua was quick to acknowledge the protestors’ complaints.

Bishop Silvio José Baez Ortega, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, thanked a group of some 2,000 students taking refuge in the Managua cathedral April 21 for being “the moral reservoir” of the Church and assured them of the Church’s support for their cause. “You have woken the nation up,” he said.

Bishop Baez has continued to voice his support for the protestors.

The AP’s Christopher Sherman reported that during a more recent homily, the bishop said that “to denounce and publicly demonstrate against the actions, historic processes, political decisions that go against the great majority is also to love,” and that, moreover, for those whose presence causes instability, “to relinquish, to leave can be an act of love.”

Bishop Rolando José Alvarez Lagos of Matagalpa has said, “We hope there would be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes to the electoral authority – free, just and transparent elections, international observation without conditions … Effectively the democratization of the country.”

According to the AP, a priest of the Diocese of Matagalpa was wounded by shrapnel May 15 while trying to separate protestors and security forces.

The bishops’ conference has asked that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights be allowed to enter Nicaragua and investigate the violence.

They have also called on the government “to hear the cry of the young Nicaraguans,” adding: “There are social sins that no human being can ignore, but rather must denounce, above all if they desire to restore the violated rights of the most vulnerable: our retirees.”

The reforms which triggered the protests were modest – the plan would have required retirees to pay 5 percent of their pension into a medical expenses fund, the social security withdrawal from employees’ salaries would have increased from 6.25 to 7 percent, and employers would have had to increase contributions as well – but protests quickly turned to Ortega’s authoritarian bent.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

He was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.


This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.


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Homeless woman says ‘miracle’ allowed her to come to Rome

May 16, 2018 CNA Daily News 0

Vatican City, May 16, 2018 / 10:56 am (CNA/EWTN News).- When Marina “Nina” Vela learned that she had been selected from the community of homeless people on the streets of Denver to go on an annual pilgrimage to Rome, she did not believe the trip would actually happen.

The process was stressful, and she had some stuff to take care of. Not only did she need to get her documents in order – including a passport and finding a missing birth certificate – but she also needed to clear up some trouble with the law.

Vela, 23, is the 5th person selected to go on pilgrimage to Rome through Denver Homeless Ministries (DHM), an organization working to provide opportunities to serve the homeless as both “equals and friends.” They offer the pilgrimage as a way to encourage those who have made difficult steps to change their lives.

When fundraising started for the May 4-14 trip to Paris and Rome last fall, Vela was on probation for domestic violence. In order to go on the trip, she had to go to court to determine if she would have to serve jail time in order to waive the probation, allowing her to leave the country.

“I have a bad record,” Vela told CNA in an interview, explaining that in general, law enforcement “don’t like when you don’t do probation,” especially when the person has a history.

“If you’ve ever been in the system and you know anything about anything, they don’t like that.”

Vela was selected in autumn of 2017, just months before thet trip was scheduled; it was a gamble as to when a hearing could be scheduled and how close of a margin it would be between when she got out and and when she got on the plane.

However, when the day of her April hearing came, Vela said what happened in the courtroom was nothing short of miraculous.

Instead of sending her behind bars, the judge decided to drop the whole case against her and let her walk completely free, after hearing the testimony of Tanya Cangelosi, who has led homeless ministries for years and has organized the past five pilgrimages taking someone from the streets to Rome.

The judge, after hearing Cangelosi’s conviction that an opportunity like the pilgrimage would inspire real change, began talking about people who changed his own life. Before tossing the case, he said the people he tried to make proud set the direction of his life, and told Nina to never let Cangelosi down.

“It was unbelievable at first. I was totally blown away. I almost started crying,” Vela said, explaining that she had been prepared to go to jail, and was shocked by the judge’s decision. “They let me go. They never do that.”

In comments to CNA, Cangelosi said Vela was chosen for the pilgrimage by God’s providence. “The Lord picked her, whether you believe in him or not, he picked her 100 percent.”

“I knew on that level of the heart that she was supposed to go, so I had to do whatever it took,” she said, voicing her conviction that Nina’s life would change as a result of the pilgrimage.

Vela, she said, “didn’t need all of that garbage in her record holding onto her and pulling her down. I thought that if she got off of all this, it would free her. And it did.”

Vela was born in an apartment in Colorado and raised by her grandmother, who has Alzheimer’s. She started couchsurfing when she was a teenager, and eventually ended up on the streets, where she began experimenting with drugs and found herself in and out of jail.

Despite finding friends who valued her for who she was, Vela said she was consistently “oppressed” by men.

However, in a testimony she provided to fund-raise for the trip, Vela said she wanted to change her life and get off the streets. She said that she wanted to travel and eventually go to art school and start a family.

As an art lover, Vela told CNA that her favorite part about the trip to Rome was just walking through the streets and seeing the city.

“I think the city is so beautiful. I love how the ruins in the forum are combined with these old looking buildings. It’s nothing like the United States. And the people are so interesting. It’s a beautiful place.”

She was also a big fan of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums, especially the Sistine Chapel. “That church was beautiful, so beautiful,” she said, referring to St. Peter’s.

Vela and Cangelosi also had front row tickets to the May 9 general audience with Pope Francis, meaning they got to shake his hand after the event ended.

Although she is not a believer, Vela said the pope is “a really nice guy” and “really sweet.” He listened as she told him about her father, who considers himself spiritual but not religious, but who loves Pope Francis. Vela said she got a blessing and a rosary from the pope that she will give to her father.

This year the Denver Homeless Ministry pilgrimage was joined by Paul Spotts, who runs Catholic Young Adult Sports (CYAS), and 10 young adults from Colorado.

Cangelosi, who met Spotts through some of the CYAS events, said he approached her last fall saying he wanted to take a group to Rome, and that he wanted to invite a homeless person to travel with them. Cangelosi told CNA that she said yes because “I wanted Nina to experience being around people her age who are working and have graduated from college.”

“Hopefully that is something that will stick in her mind in the future,” she said, adding that having Vela with them was also “a life-changing experience” for the other young adults who came, since they had never really spent time with a homeless person before.

In her comments to CNA, Vela said that while the group dynamic was hard, she bonded with some of the people in the group, and felt respected.

Now working at a coffee roaster, and with housing lined up for the future, Vela said she doesn’t know what the future will hold, but is grateful to have had the opportunity to come to Rome.