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Medal of Honor chaplain Fr Emil Kapaun's body identified, as sainthood inquiry continues

Denver Newsroom, Mar 5, 2021 / 05:27 pm (CNA).- Department of Defense investigators have identified the remains of U.S. Army chaplain and Servant of God Fr. Emil Kapaun among the unknown Korean War soldiers buried in a Hawaiian cemetery, much to the surprise and joy of the priest’s relatives and devotees in his home state of Kansas.
 
“I just hope everybody is as elated as we are. It’s awesome to know that Fr. Kapaun will be coming home after 70 years,” Fr. John Hotze of the Diocese of Wichita told CNA March 5. 
 
Ray Kapaun, the priest’s nephew, reflected on the news.
 
“There’s no words that can explain what the feelings are right now,” he said, according to KWCH News.
 
“I know there’s been a lot of miracles that have been attributed to him, or are in the investigation of being attributed to him, but I think everyone sees this as a miracle,” Ray said. “Because this is so unexpected. I mean, my family, we never thought we’d see this in our lifetime.”
 
The priest had been a chaplain during the Second World War and became known for his service in the Korean War with the U.S. Army's Eighth Cavalry regiment. After he was taken prisoner, he served and ministered to other soldiers in a prison camp, where he died May 23, 1951.
 
The U.S. Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has determined that the priest’s remains were among unidentified soldiers buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, the Wichita diocese said March 4. Many soldiers’ remains had been moved there from North Korea in the 1950s and again in the 1990s.
 
Bishop Carl Kemme of Wichita welcomed the discovery.
 
“It was a joyful and exciting surprise for the Diocese of Wichita that Fr. Kapaun’s mortal remains were recovered after so many years and we continue to look forward to his process of canonization in the future,” said the bishop.
 
Kapaun’s surviving family is helping to plan the transport of his remains and his final resting place.
 
Father Hotze, who serves as the episcopal delegate for Kapaun’s beatification cause, said the news of the identification of the priest’s remains was “easily one of the last things I expected.”
 
“We’ve always hoped that his remains would be found. It is something that has been on the back burner for everybody for so long. It is great news,” he said.

He reported that the chaplain’s cause for Catholic sainthood is in “a waiting phase” due to delays related to the coronavirus pandemic.
 
In 1993, Kapaun was named a “Servant of God,” the first step on the way to being declared a saint. To be declared “venerable” is the second step in the canonization process. A key meeting regarding his case had been scheduled at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in March 2020, but that meeting was postponed due to the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in Italy.
 
Hotze had high praise for the army chaplain, describing him as “an ordinary person who was able to do extraordinary things in service to his fellow men and women and ultimately that meant in service to God.”
 
“And that’s how he gave his life,” he said. “He truly followed the example of Christ. You can see Christ’s life, passion and death all rolled up into Fr. Kapaun.”
 
Kapaun was born in Pilsen, Kansas in 1916. He came of age during the Great Depression. He was ordained a priest in 1940 and began ministry as a parish priest in his hometown.
 
During World War II Kapaun would offer the sacraments at the nearby Harrington Army Air Field until he became a full-time army chaplain in 1944. He was stationed in India and Burma for the duration of the war. There, he ministered to soldiers and served his unit with a selfless attitude.
 
He also gained a reputation for courage. After Kapaun’s jeep had been damaged, he would often ride his bicycle to meet soldiers even at the front lines. He would follow the sound of gunshots to find them.
 
After World War II ended, Kapaun studied history and education at the Catholic University of America. He returned home for a brief time as pastor of his boyhood parish and served at several other parishes. In 1948, the United States issued a call for military chaplains to return to service. Kapaun responded. He was then sent to Texas, Washington, and Japan before deployment to Korea.
 
During the Battle of Unsan in November 1950, Kapaun worked tirelessly to comfort the suffering and retrieve the wounded from the battlefield. One of the soldiers he retrieved was a wounded Chinese soldier, who helped him negotiate a surrender after he was surrounded by enemy troops. Kapaun was taken captive as a prisoner of war.
 
Even then, he helped others. Kapaun carried a wounded American prisoner who could not walk some 30 miles to a prison camp, though the soldier weighed 20 pounds more than the priest. The man could have been killed by enemy soldiers if he could not keep up with the march.
 
The priest was taken to prison camp number five in Pyoktong, a bombed-out village that served as a detainment center. The soldiers at the camp were severely mistreated and suffered from malnourishment, dysentery, and a lack of warm clothing to counter an extremely cold winter. Kapaun would do all he could for the soldiers. He would wash their soiled clothes, retrieve fresh water, and attend to their wounds.
 
The priest helped his fellow prisoners solve problems and keep up morale. He would stay up at night to write letters home on behalf of wounded soldiers. Many returned prisoners of war said his efforts helped them to survive in a harsh winter. For those who did not survive, the priest helped to bury their corpses.
 
Fr. Kapaun would celebrate the sacraments for his fellow prisoners, hear their confessions, and say Mass. On Easter Sunday 1951, about two months before his death, he held a sunrise service for prisoners.
 
When he developed pneumonia and a blood clot in his leg, the chaplain was denied medical treatment, which led to his death.
 
For his bravery at Unsan, Kapaun was posthumously bestowed the Congressional Medal of Honor in a 2013 ceremony under President Barack Obama. The medal is the United States’ highest military award for bravery.
 
While the priest’s body was believed to have been buried in a mass grave on the Yalu River near the North Korea-China border, this was not the case. Instead, his remains had been returned to the U.S. in the 1950s along with hundreds of other unidentified soldiers, Hotze told CNA. He believes inquiry into his possible canonization led to information that Hotze helped lead to the identification of the chaplain’s remains.
 
“He was buried elsewhere in the prison camp,” said Hotze. “His remains were actually returned to the U.S. right after the Korean War, around 1954.”
 
A set of remains had initially been mislabeled as Fr. Kapaun’s, but investigators determined they instead belonged to a younger man in his late teens or early 20s, rather than to a 35-year-old priest. Further identification was difficult, in part to a lack of technology.
 
“He was interred at the national cemetery, as were many others, as an unknown soldier,” Hotze said. “Fortunately, the Department of Defense still actively tries to identify the remains of these unknown soldiers.”
 
Those involved in Kapaun’s canonization cause were told it could be a matter of time to identify his remains if they were indeed at the cemetery.
 
“And that’s exactly what happened,” said Hotze. “We’re thrilled.”
 
Every June pilgrims march from Wichita to Kapaun’s hometown of Pilsen. They make the 60-mile walk in commemoration of the priest and his march to the prison camps.
 
“People are inspired by what he was able to do,” Hotze said. “He was born shortly before the depression. He grew up during the depression as a poor Kansas farmer. The family had nothing. And he was able to make great things happen with nothing.”
 
“He used what he had, and put it in service to God and in service to others. I think he’s a perfect example for each and every one of us who strives to be a saint,” he said. “We can look at his example and realize even if we are poor, even if we are destitute, even if we have nothing in our own lives, we can still be a saintly person.”
 
U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who had introduced legislation to award Kapaun the Medal of Honor, also commented on the identification of the priest’s remains.
 
“I am glad that his family has finally been granted closure after Father Kapaun’s selfless service to our nation,” said Moran, according to the Wichita Eagle newspaper.

States consider restrictions on gender transitioning, transgender participation in girls’ sports

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 05:00 pm (CNA).- Lawmakers in Mississippi and Alabama have been debating bills concerning children who identify as transgender.

The governor of Mississippi pledges to sign a bill that would prohibit males who identify as females from participating on girls’ sports teams.

“I will sign our bill to protect young girls from being forced to compete with biological males for athletic opportunities,” said Gov. Tate Reeves (R) on Twitter on March 4. 

“It’s crazy we have to address it, but the Biden (executive order) forced the issue,” he added. “Adults? That’s on them. But the push for kids to adopt transgenderism is just wrong.” President Biden’s Jan. 20 executive order stated that his administration will interpret federal civil rights law to protect sexual orientation and gender identity, a move critics warned would have broad implications in a number of areas including schools and sports.

The Mississippi legislature voted overwhelmingly--81 to 28 in the state House and 34-9 in the state Senate--to pass the “Mississippi Fairness Act.” Eight Democratic House representatives joined 73 Republicans to vote for the bill, while the Senate vote fell along party lines with all “yea” votes coming from Republicans.  

The Mississippi Fairness Act would “require any public school, public institution of higher learning or institution of higher learning that is a member of the NCAA, NAIA or NJCCA to designate its athletic teams or sports according to biological sex; to provide protection for any school or institution of higher education that maintains separate athletic teams or sport for students of the female sex; to create private causes of action; and for related purposes.” 

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 25 states have considered bills restricting athletes who identify as transgender from competing on a sports team aligned with their gender identity. 

Only one state, Idaho, has so far signed a bill restricting athletes identifying as transgender from competing with cisgender female athletes. The law has yet to go into effect and has been stalled in the courts.

Meanwhile in the neighboring state of Alabama, the state senate voted to make it a felony to provide a minor with puberty-blocking drugs, hormone therapy, or surgery to better mimic their chosen gender. 

A child with a diagnosed disorder of sexual development, such as a chromosomal abnormality, is exempt from the law. 

The Alabama Senate voted 23-4 to move the “Vulnerable Child Compassion and Protection Act” to the state House of Representatives. The vote fell along party lines, with all Democrats voting against and all Republicans voting in favor of the bill. 

The bill also would make it illegal for school employees, including teachers, principals, nurses, and counselors, to “encourage or coerce a minor to withhold from the minor’s parent or legal guardian the fact that the minor’s perception of his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex,” or “withhold from a minor’s parent or guardian information related to a minor’s perception that his or her gender or sex is inconsistent with his or her sex.” 

Actors say they have not been paid for their work on 'Roe v. Wade' film

Denver Newsroom, Mar 5, 2021 / 04:28 pm (CNA).- Several actors who worked on the film “Roe v. Wade” claim they are still waiting to be paid for their work on the movie, despite shooting their scenes over two years ago.

The film’s co-director and co-producer told CNA that the payment issue is resolved on their end, and they are waiting for the actors union to pay the actors using a large deposit the filmmakers placed with the union.

“Roe v. Wade,” a film about the landmark 1973 US Supreme Court decision on abortion, premiered last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Susan LaBrecque, a Mississippi-based actor with a small speaking role in the movie, told CNA that she has yet to be paid for her work, despite her scenes being filmed over two days in New Orleans during July 2018.

Members of the actors union, SAG-AFTRA, normally can expect their payment to arrive within 30-45 days of filming, LaBrecque said.

Because the current payments are delayed, there will be late fees applied by the union, she noted. She said she knows of several other actors in the film— all with similarly small roles— who have not gotten their paychecks.

She said to her, it feels wrong that the film premiered before everyone involved was compensated for the work they put into it. 

"It feels wrong to tell [such] a moral story in a way, and have something in the background that's not morally correct," LaBrecque told CNA.

Cathy Allyn, co-director and producer of the movie, told CNA that they had placed a $200,000 deposit with SAG to cover any missed payments or other expenses, which is common practice in the film industry.

The missing payments were not caught until the filmmakers completed post-production accounting, at which point it was too late for them to hire a payroll company, Allyn asserted.

Allyn said she signed paperwork “a few weeks ago” to allow SAG to release their deposit to a payroll company, which will pay the actors.

She said the payment issues were likely due to "incomplete paperwork,” that she had apologized to the actors profusely, and that she and her co-producer Nick Loeb have no intention of leaving cast members “hanging.”

She said the filmmakers went through the “appropriate legal avenues” with SAG, and that COVID-19 likely contributed to the delay in the payments.

SAG did not respond by press time Friday to CNA’s request for comment, but released a statement to Los Angeles Magazine on the matter March 3.

“We were finally able to secure a release on the producer’s deposit [from] February 10. We are processing the funds with a payroll company so we can get payments out to performers as quickly as possible,” the statement reads.

“This does not cover all of the claims and we hope that the producer will fulfill its obligations and fully pay all talent,” it concluded.

LaBrecque pushed back on Allyn’s assertion that the actors know what they are owed, stating that she does not have “any idea how much the fees are, or when they will be paid.”

Actors Sherri Eakin and Brent Phillip Henry confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter that they, too, have yet to be compensated. They told THR that they have also not yet been given a payment schedule.

CNA encouraged other actors with the same problem to reach out voluntarily, but did not receive any additional reports by press time.

“Roe v. Wade” is set to be available in April on Amazon Prime and iTunes. Among its executive producers is Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece.

Loeb, a businessman-turned-filmmaker and actor, co-directed, co-produced, and starred in “Roe v. Wade.” He plays the part of Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a prolific abortion doctor who later converted to Christianity and became pro-life.

In a Feb. 23 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Loeb said despite the film’s subject matter, it is not a “conservative,” “religious,” or even a “pro-life” film.

Loeb said not all the actors in the film are pro-life, but at least one of the actors— whom he declined to name— converted from pro-choice views to pro-life over the course of filmmaking.

“What we tried to do is really just lay out the facts of how Roe v. Wade came to be and how it was decided. People can take one view or another. I've had a lot of people who think it's in the middle,” he commented to The Hollywood Reporter.

Still, Loeb himself is pro-life and the personal journey of Loeb’s character, Nathanson, is one of pro-life conversion.

“Why some folks may think it's a conservative film or why it aligns with those views is because the protagonist actually converts. He starts off pro-choice and becomes pro-life through his journey. It's a true story,” Loeb commented.

Nathanson personally performed an estimated 5,000 abortions and oversaw tens of thousands more, including one on his own pregnant girlfriend in the 1960s.

Nathanson was previously a strong proponent of legalized abortion, and has been accused of inflating statistics on illegal abortions in the U.S. In 1969, he helped to found the lobbying organization now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America.

He left the practice of abortion in the early 1970s, and became a Christian and a pro-life activist until his death in 2011.

Catholic scholars: Covid vaccines can be received 'without fear of moral culpability' for abortion

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 04:06 pm (CNA).- A statement by pro-life, Catholic scholars published Friday says that the four major COVID-19 vaccines are not only acceptable to use, but also are themselves morally equivalent.

"While there is a technical causal linkage between each of the current vaccines and prior abortions of human persons, we are all agreed, that connection does not mean that vaccine use contributes to the evil of abortion or shows disrespect for the remains of unborn human beings. Accordingly, Catholics, and indeed, all persons of good will who embrace a culture of life for the whole human family, born and unborn, can use these vaccines without fear of moral culpability," reads a statement by several Catholic ethicists published March 5.

The statement adds: “There appears to us to be no real distinction between the vaccines in terms of their connection to an abortion many decades ago, and thus the moral starting point is one of equivalence.”
 
The eight signers of the statement are Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., professor of systematic theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas; Father Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., professor of biology and theology at Providence College; Carter Snead, director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame; Dr. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Dr. Maureen Condic, associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah; Father Kevin Flannery, S.J., emeritus professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University; Dr. Christopher Tollefsen, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina; and Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
 
The scholars spoke in reference to the four major COVID-19 vaccines: those produced by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Oxford University/AstraZeneca.
 
In the statement, they explored the most controversial ethical aspect of the major COVID-19 vaccines—their connection to cell lines derived from an aborted baby.
 
The HEK-293 cell line is derived from a baby aborted in the 1970s. It is widely used in vaccine production and testing, especially in common vaccines such as those for measles and rubella.
 
While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had a remote connection to the HEK-293 cell line in the early phases of design—relying upon previous research that utilized the cell line—they were not produced with the cell line, as were the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. However, some of the testing for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used the HEK-293 cell line.
 
Thus, some pro-life advocates and the U.S. bishops’ conference have argued that while it may be morally licit for Catholics to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they should try to receive a vaccine with a less direct connection to abortion, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
 
Furthermore, the USCCB has said that it is acceptable for Catholics to refuse a COVID vaccine out of conscience, if they believe that doing so has an impermissible link to abortion.
 
Bishops themselves have differed in their statements on the vaccines, with some echoing the USCCB’s call preferring one vaccine to another. Others, such as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, have said Catholics could receive any of the vaccines without hesitation. The Bishop of Bismarck, meanwhile, said that Catholics should refuse the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its connection to abortion.
 
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in December that it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID-19 vaccines connected to abortions, if no ethical alternative is available.
 
Meanwhile, on Friday, the Catholic scholars stated that “[t]hose who have special reasons to take the J&J [Johnson & Johnson] vaccine should not, we believe, be led to think that they are choosing something that in other ways is more morally tainted than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.”
 
Their statement could appear to diverge from that of the USCCB, which said that Catholics should prefer a vaccine with a more remote connection to abortion if possible. The USCCB’s doctrine chair, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of South Bend, has clarified that “What’s most important is that people get vaccinated,” in a March 4 video message.
 
The connection of all four vaccine candidates to abortions is extremely remote—“a technical causal linkage,” the scholars wrote—and Catholics receiving any of those vaccines is not “in any way endorsing or contributing to the practice of abortion.” On that particular matter, they affirmed their agreement with Bishop Rhoades.
 
Catholics “can use these vaccines without fear of moral culpability,” they stated, adding that there are “little if any moral reasons against accepting” one of the four COVID vaccines.
 
Furthermore, the HEK-293 cell line is connected to more public goods than many might realize, the scholars said. The cells are used to test processed foods, for testing in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, and “their use in biomedical research is ubiquitous,” they wrote.
 
The cell lines are not “body parts” of the aborted baby, but are rather “biological products that have been modified and reproduced many times over, and they do not retain the natural function of the tissue from which they were derived.”
 
The HEK-293 cell line does not rely upon continued abortions, but is continuously derived from the baby believed to have been aborted in the 1970s, they said. The baby was not aborted in order for its body to be used for medical research, they noted.
 
Pro-lifers might prefer one vaccine to another because of a perceived lack of connection to abortion, they said.
 
“Again, we agree with Bishop Rhoades that such a choice is a matter for their conscience. But we think it a mistake to say both that these vaccines are morally permissible to use and yet that some ought to be preferred to others,” they said.
 
Furthermore, one could make a prudential argument in favor of receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine given that it is easier to store and transport and requires only one shot rather than two, as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require.
 
“Persons with access to these vaccines have strong moral reasons to take them: in doing so, they build up the herd immunity that will provide the greatest possible protection for the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, some minority populations, and the many other seemingly random victims of severe COVD-19,” they stated.

“To be perfectly clear, we are not saying that people are justified in using and promoting these vaccines because the great goods they provide offset the evil of appropriating a prior wicked action. Rather, we believe that there is no such impermissible cooperation or appropriation here. The attenuated and remote connection to abortions performed decades ago and the absence of any incentive for future abortions offer little if any moral reasons against accepting this welcome advance of science.”

Tasmania poised to legalize euthanasia, assisted suicide

Hobart, Australia, Mar 5, 2021 / 03:01 pm (CNA).- The Australian island of Tasmania is expected to become the third Australian state to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia, after a bill passed the lower house of the state’s parliament Thursday night.

The law would apply to people over 18 with an advanced, incurable, irreversible condition expected to cause death within six months, and patients can opt out of the decision at any time, the Australian Associated Press reported.

In a 16-6 vote March 4, the bill was passed by the House of Assembly. The governing Liberal Party members were given a conscience vote on the bill. All nine members of the opposition Australian Labor Party voted for the bill, as did both members of the Greens, who are crossbenchers.

Tasmanian lawmakers debated the bill, known as “End of Life Choices,” extensively this week. The state’s legislature has in the past rejected bills to legalize assisted suicide, most recently in 2013.

The bill will require approval from the parliament’s upper house before it can become law.

Assisted suicide and euthanasia have been legal in Victoria since June 2019, and in December 2019 Western Australia passed a law allowing the practices, which is expected to take effect in mid-2021.

Australia is currently considering legalizing euthanasia nationwide.

One of the Tasmanian bill’s provisions states that medical practitioners who object to assisted suicide and euthanasia must provide the patient seeking it with the contact information for the state’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Commission. 

Anther provision would allow assisted suicide to be prescribed via telemedicine— a provision hotly debated in Tasmania’s parliament.

The Tasmanian branch of the Australian Medical Association told ABC News last year that they do not support the bill, or assisted suicide in general. "The bill as it stands is really physician-assisted suicide and we don't support that … we don't agree that a doctor should ever do any action with a primary purpose of ending a person's life," AMA Tasmania President Helen McArdle told the ABC.

Live and Die Well, a Tasmanian group that advocates for palliative care rather than assisted suicide, has argued against the bill on the grounds that it does not provide enough safeguards for the vulnerable.

New South Wales rejected such a bill in 2017, as did the national parliament in 2016.

The Northern Territory legalized assisted suicide in 1995, but the Australian parliament overturned the law two years later.

Catholic bishops in Australia have repeatedly written in support of palliative care as an alternative to assisted suicide and euthaniasia.

The state of Victoria reported more than ten times the anticipated number of deaths from assisted suicide and euthanasia in its first legal year.

Victoria’s Voluntary Assisted Dying Review Board reported 124 deaths by assisted suicide and euthanasia since June 19, 2019, when the legalization of the precedure took effect, The Catholic Weekly reported. There were a total of 231 permits issued for the procedure that year. The state’s premier had publicly predicted only “a dozen” deaths by assisted suicide in the first year.

Last month, an Australian university found that the country has less than half the number of palliative care physicians needed to care for terminally-ill patients.

A study published by Australian Catholic University’s PM Glynn Institute revealed that the country only has 0.9 palliative care doctors per every 100,000 people. According to the ACU, health industry standards state there should be at least two doctors for this population.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's September 2020 letter Samaritanus bonus reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching on the sinfulness of euthanasia and assisted suicide, and recalled the obligation of Catholics to accompany the sick and dying through prayer, physical presence, and the sacraments.

Samaritanus bonus also addressed the pastoral care of Catholics who request euthanasia or assisted suicide, explaining that a priest and others should avoid any active or passive gesture which might signal approval for the action, including remaining until the act is performed.

Why Christians hope Pope Francis’ visit will bring a ‘reset’ for Iraq

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq is hoped to bring a “reset” for the country, said one U.S. religious freedom advocate who has visited the region multiple times in recent years.

“Iraq cannot continue the way that it is, and see good outcomes. So there has to be some adjustments,” said Nadine Maenza, a commissioner at the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in an interview with CNA on Friday.

“I’m hoping that the light being shown on Iraq, and on Christians in particular, by the pope coming—it’s such a beautiful moment of just saying these people have value, they belong in Iraq, we all need to figure out how we can build a better Iraq together—I just hope it does have a restart for the country,” she said.

Maenza has traveled to the region multiple times in the last two years, including a visit to Sinjar, home to the Yazidi religious minority, as well as Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, where many Christians fled from ISIS in 2014.

She spoke to CNA at the outset of Pope Francis’ visit to Iraq, the first-ever visit of a pope to the country. From March 5-8, Pope Francis will meet with the country’s political and religious leaders, hoping to encourage the local church and foster interreligious dialogue.

On Friday, Pope Francis met with the country’s political and diplomatic leaders, as well as around 100 local Catholic leaders including Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignatius Joseph Younan and Chaldean Catholic Patriarch Louis Raphaël Sako.

The pope addressed the Catholics at the Syriac Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of Salvation, where 48 people were martyred during a 2010 terrorist attack.

Christians in Iraq have been devastated by the U.S. invasion in 2003, the resulting sectarian violence, and the rise of ISIS in 2014. Their population has been steadily dwindling for decades, from around 1.5 million in 2003 to around 250,000 Christians in the country.

However, when ISIS swept across the region in 2014, many Christians fled into neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan, taking refuge in and around the city of Erbil.

Maenza told CNA that Iraqi Christians are currently suffering from two chief problems: a lack of security and a lack of economic opportunity. She hoped Pope Francis’ visit would draw attention to these matters and help produce a solution.

Christians and Yazidis want to be involved in the decision-making about the future of the country, but they have not been given a seat at that table, she said.

“These people feel powerless,” Maenza said, noting their frustration that they don’t have a say in economic or security policy.

Iraq has resources, including the fifth largest oil reserves in the world, but the country is not able to even provide consistent electricity or water to its citizens, much less a sufficient number of jobs, she said.

After ISIS was defeated, many Christians in the country’s north have been unwilling or unable to return to their liberated towns on the Nineveh Plain or in Mosul. They still have serious security concerns, Maenza explained.

A number of militia units of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), as well as the country’s security forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, and Christian militias, are all active in the region, she said, yet many of their members do not hail from the local towns they occupy.

Maenza compared the situation to the “Wild West,” where any citizen traveling through the security checkpoints is subjected to a shakedown. Thus, many Christians who fled ISIS but who remain in Iraq have not yet returned to their homes because they don’t feel safe with the presence of the militias and security forces.

Christians need to be reminded that they are a part of Iraq’s future—which will hopefully be a fruit of Pope Francis’ trip, she said. “Diversity is a good thing,” Maenza said of the Sunni and Shia Muslims and the number of ethno-religious minorities that make up Iraq’s population.

Pope Francis on Friday used the metaphor of a complex carpet to describe the different Christian churches in the country.

“The different Churches present in Iraq, each with its age-old historical, liturgical and spiritual patrimony, are like so many individual coloured threads that, woven together, make up a single beautiful carpet, one that displays not only our fraternity but points also to its source,” the pope said.

“For God himself is the artist who imagined this carpet, patiently wove it and carefully mends it, desiring us ever to remain closely knit as his sons and daughters.”

Pope Francis will also meet with leading Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, during his trip.

The meeting is significant, Maenza explained, and hoped that the pope could successfully push for Shiite militias on the Nineveh plain to stand off so that local Christians can safely return to their homes and live peacefully.

“That kind of conversation is a good thing,” she said.

Pope Francis backs prior of ‘troubled’ ecumenical community amid clash with founder

Vatican City, Mar 5, 2021 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- Pope Francis on Friday underlined his support for the prior of a “troubled” ecumenical community amid a dispute with its founder.

A statement issued by the Holy See press office on March 5 noted that the pope met with Br. Luciano Manicardi, prior of the Bose Monastic Community, on the eve of his trip to Iraq. 

Fr. Amedeo Cencini, the pontifical delegate to the community founded in northern Italy in 1965, also attended the meeting.

“His Holiness thus wished to express to the prior and to the Community his closeness and his support, in this troubled phase of its life, confirming his appreciation for the Community and for its peculiarity of being formed by brothers and sisters from different Christian churches,” the press office said.

“Pope Francis, who from the beginning has followed the matter with particular attention, also wished to confirm the work of the pontifical delegate in recent months, thanking him for having acted in full harmony with the Holy See, with the sole intent of alleviating the suffering of both individuals and the Community.”

The statement comes amid a standoff between the Community and its founder, the prominent Italian layman Enzo Bianchi.

The Holy See had given Bianchi until Feb. 17 to leave the monastery after issuing a decree, signed by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin on May 13, 2020, following an apostolic visitation.

A Feb. 18 statement on the Community’s website announced “with deep bitterness” that Bianchi had not left the community in Piedmont to move to Tuscany as instructed by the pontifical delegate in January.

Bianchi founded the community in Biella in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. It is a mixed community, composed of both men and women, who pray the Liturgy of the Hours and follow a rule influenced by St. Benedict and St. Basil the Great. Members include Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians.  

A charismatic figure, Bianchi has maintained a high profile in the Italian Church. He took part in the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization and was named a consultor for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 2014.  

Bianchi resigned as prior of the community in 2017 and Manicardi was chosen as his successor. 

The apostolic visitation, which took place between Dec. 6, 2019, and Jan. 6, 2020, was conducted by Fr. Guillermo León Arboleda Tamayo, Abbot President of the Benedictine Subiaco Cassinese Congregation, Cencini, a consultor for the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, and Mother Anne-Emmanuelle Devéche, Abbess of Blauvac, France.

In a 2020 statement, the Community said that Cencini had communicated the Vatican’s ruling privately to those concerned with “the greatest possible respect for the privacy of the interested parties.”

But after “several of the interested parties” rejected the measures, it said it was “opportune to specify that the above-mentioned provisions regard Br. Enzo Bianchi, two brothers and one sister, who are to separate themselves from the Monastic Community of Bose and to move to another place and who at the same time are relieved of all the offices they presently hold.”

The statement added that Parolin had sent a letter to the community that “has traced a path of the future and of hope, indicating the basic lines of a process of renewal, which, we trust, will give a fresh impetus to our monastic and ecumenical life.”

The Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported on March 4 that Pope Francis had also communicated with Bianchi as he sought to resolve the disagreement.

Bianchi has not commented directly on the latest developments, but he has appeared to address the situation indirectly via his Twitter account.

A few days before defying the order to leave, he wrote: “The exercise of silence is difficult and tiring for all of us, but the hour comes when the truth cries out precisely with silence: even Jesus, according to the Gospels, kept silent before Herod, and did not deign to give him an answer. So silence yes, assent to the lie no!”

The Holy See press office statement concluded: “Finally, the Holy Father manifested his solicitude in accompanying the path of conversion and recovery of the Community according to the orientations and modalities clearly defined in the decree of May 13, 2020, the contents of which the pope reiterates and whose implementation he asks for.”

Tattoo artist restores Stations of the Cross in Belarus

CNA Staff, Mar 5, 2021 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- A tattoo artist has restored the Stations of the Cross at a church in Belarus at the invitation of the local pastor. 

Julia Kulba -- known in the tattoo business as Pipetka -- applied her skills to the 14 bas-relief Stations of Cross at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Adamovichi, a village in the northwestern Grodno Region.

Catholic.by, the website of the Catholic Church in Belarus, reported March 4, that Fr. Alexander Shemet also asked Kulba to restore an image of Christ the Good Shepherd.

“They turned to me. I gladly accepted the offer,” Kulba told Hrodna.life, which first reported on her project and created a slider showing a before-and-after view of one of the Stations.

Kulba, a highly regarded tattoo artist with more than 15 years of experience, had never restored a religious artwork before Shemet approached her in early 2021. She worked with her sister, who is also a trained artist.

The church was built in 1854. A former prisoner of a Soviet camp began to restore the Stations 60 years ago but was forced to abandon the work due to ill health.

The ex-prisoner worked under the guidance of the then pastor, Fr. Kazimir Orlowski. He was ordained a priest in 1939, serving as a chaplain to the Polish resistance movement in World War II. In 1950, he was arrested for anti-Soviet propaganda and sentenced to death. His sentence was ultimately commuted to 25 years in a penal camp. 

After serving part of his sentence, Orlowski returned to the church and oversaw its restoration.

Belarus is a landlocked country bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Catholics are the second-largest religious community after Orthodox Christians, comprising roughly 15% of the 9.5 million population. 

Hrodna.life reported that Kulba and her sister worked inside the church for a week during daylight hours.

She told the publication that the restoration would be “for the good not only of the church but also of the people who come here.” 

Papal Mass in Erbil 'nothing short of a miracle', organizer says

Erbil, Iraq, Mar 5, 2021 / 11:19 am (CNA).- When Vida Hanna was told by the Archbishop Bashar Warda of the Chaldean Archeparchy of Erbil that Pope Francis was coming to Iraq, she thought to herself it was just another rumor.

Growing up in the Chaldean Catholic community in Erbil, Hanna, 27, was a little girl when there were rumors that St. John Paul II was planning to come to Iraq for the Jubilee 2000.

“But once I saw the official announcement from the Vatican, I knew this time it was for real,” she told CNA from her office at the Catholic University in Erbil.

Hanna, who graduated in communications at UC San Diego, is the director of public and international relations at the Catholic university, and Archbishop Warda appointed her coordinator of the Mass Pope Francis will celebrate March 7 at Erbil's Franso Hariri Stadium.

“COVID has devastated the local economy, so organizing an event of this magnitude, even for the local Kurdish autonomous authorities, was financially impossible,” Hanna said. But according to her, the Knights of Columbus stepped in on their own initiative. “With their usual generosity and discretion, they made this dream possible for the whole community,” she added.

“Calling this event historical is almost an understatement for all minorities, especially Christian, after centuries of massacre, persecutions, and forced displacement.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Vida Hanna was chosen to coordinate the Mass Pope Francis will celebrate on March 7 in Erbil. She says the people are overjoyed by the Holy Father&#39;s visit as he brings &quot;a sign of hope, peace and love,&quot; for the marginalized people of the region. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PopeinIraq?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PopeinIraq</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/PopeFrancisInIraq?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#PopeFrancisInIraq</a> <a href="https://t.co/UJ8wYYF7Kz">pic.twitter.com/UJ8wYYF7Kz</a></p>&mdash; Catholic News Agency (@cnalive) <a href="https://twitter.com/cnalive/status/1367931531029737472?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">March 5, 2021</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>

Once the funds were secured, Hanna convoked volunteers. They got far more than they expected to, because “all the Christian kids know that this is a once in a life opportunity.”

She then put the Catholic university IT managers to work on software that would guarantee high standards of identity recognition.

“This took quite an effort, because, as you can understand, the security standards have to be very high: we need to double check documents, correct name spellings, make sure they match IDs, and so forth,” she told CNA.  

The volunteers were trained at the Catholic university, gathered information from Christians in a 50 mile radius from Erbil, and set up 30 computers at the campus. “The sign-in for the 10,000 available seats lasted two weeks, while simultaneously, a group of volunteers with church and government experts scouted the stadium, established perimeters, security areas, and contingency plans,” Hanna says. 

She told CNA that with all this details taken care of, “the next challenge was transportation.” “Keep in mind, never before in Erbil, 10,000 people have been simultaneously transported to a single place in an orderly fashion. But we are now very confident that everything is in place and will work fine.” 

Hanna is especially happy that the Mass is involving so many young people. Beside the 250 young volunteers, there are another 100 youth in the chorus that will accompany the Mass.

“All of the local young Christians are in awe that this is happening to them and their generation... and it is so much needed! Only the Holy Father can bring the sense of security, the inner peace, the hope for a society that accepts religious diversity,” she said.

During the Mass, local Muslim authorities will attend, and there will be a place reserved for other minorities such as the Yazidis. The celebration will include passages in Aramaic, Kurdish, Arabic, English, and Italian. “I will be doing one of the readings in Aramaic, the language of Jesus… so I am a bit nervous,” Hanna joked.

“But the important thing is that the Mass will be not only the celebration of Jesus’ sacrifice, but also a strong message to our young Christians: you can stay, you don’t need to leave, you can build a future here, in the land where we Christians have been for almost two millennia.”  

Maine diocese, state, increase church attendance in time for Holy Week

Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 10:30 am (CNA).- Two weeks after the Bishop of Portland in Maine called state restrictions on religious gatherings “unacceptable,” Maine’s governor is allowing churches to host at 50% capacity beginning March 26. 

Gov. Janet Mills (D) announced on Friday that Maine churches will soon be able to host indoor religious gatherings at 50% capacity, a significant change from the state’s Feb. 12 restrictions of five people per 1,000 feet of church space or 50 people total.

About two hours before the state issued the order, Bishop Robert Deeley of Portland had announced the diocese would be increasing attendance limits at indoor Masses and liturgies to 50% church capacity. 

“The diocese is pleased that Governor Mills agrees with the diocese’s plan as Maine’s Catholic churches, which have successfully held over 25,000 Masses since June, will now be in line with neighboring states in our ability to provide greater opportunity to parishioners in Maine,” Dave Guthro, the head of communications for the Diocese of Portland, told CNA on Friday.  

Guthro told CNA that the diocese had been in communication with the governor since the Feb. 12 announcement, hoping Mills would “reconsider” her order “as it did little to help Maine Catholics.”

“We asked the governor to consider the mental and spiritual needs of Mainers, who will now be able to have the additional opportunities to grow in faith and community at Holy Week and beyond,” Guthro said.

The state’s expanded capacity limits can go into effect on the Friday before Holy Week - a liturgical significance that Bishop Deeley emphasized in his statement on Friday. 

“The events commemorated in Holy Week are the focus of our reflection and penance during Lent. The climax of the mission of Jesus is unfolded. The love of God he reveals to us becomes very real for us in his suffering, death, and resurrection,” Bishop Deeley said of Holy Week. 

“I know that expanding our capacity for in-person worship at the start of Holy Week will bring great joy to many parishioners who have been unable to attend Mass as they wish due to attendance restrictions. Now, they can participate in the most solemn week of the year as we, together, remember the events which are at the heart of our Christian faith,” he stated.

Precautions will remain in place at churches during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the bishop said, including the dispensation from the Sunday obligation and requirements of masks and social distancing for attendees. 

The announcement of the capacity increase comes one day after nearby Connecticut lifted all capacity restrictions on retail establishments and houses of worship, requiring only social distancing and masking. 

Churches in Maine have been under some of the strictest regulations in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Until Friday’s announcement, capacity at houses of worship had been mostly limited to just 50 people since their reopening in June, 2020. 

There have been no outbreaks of coronavirus traced to a Mass in the state of Maine, the diocese said. 

Maine’s only Catholic diocese has been critical of Gov. Mills over capacity restrictions in recent weeks. 

On Feb. 12, Mills announced an “expansion” of capacity for houses of worship that allowed for five people per 1,000 square feet. According to the diocese, the “expansion” only increased capacity at fewer than 10 of the state’s 141 Catholic churches. 

Deeley called for a percentage capacity restriction similar to that of other states. He said that the governor’s office had refused to work with the diocese in crafting restrictions for houses of worship.

“This ruling, though sold as an ‘expansion,’ provides no real advance for the vast majority of the state,” said Deeley in a Feb. 17 statement provided to CNA. 

Two of Maine’s largest churches--the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland and the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Lewiston--could hold 975 people and more than 1,500 people inside, respectively. However, under the state’s restrictions, they would only be able to hold at most 63 people and 105 people inside, respectively. 

The previous hard cap of 50 people inside churches had been particularly hard on families, Guthro explained to CNA in February, as a family of five would account for 10% of the legal capacity at one Mass. Many parishes in Maine required people to sign up for Masses ahead of time, and names were checked at the door prior to entry.