In midst of refugee hardship, there is kindness and laughter

Editor’s Note: The author is international editor at Catholic News Service and is on a reporting trip to the Middle East sponsored by Catholic Relief Services.

AMMAN, Jordan – The stories sound so much alike one might think they were rehearsed, except for the pain in the refugees’ eyes.

Syrian refugee children attend church-backed preschool program in Jordan. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Syrian refugee children attend church-backed preschool program in Jordan. (CNS/Barb Fraze)

The Iraqis left Mosul and surrounding villages with only the clothes on their back after receiving ultimatums from Islamic State fighters. Eventually, they all camped out in Irbil, Iraq, before making their way to Jordan.

The Syrians never ever dreamed they would be forced to leave their homes. Many were taken by bus to the border of Jordan and had to cross over at night.

After editing story after story from the Middle East, there is something very humbling about looking into a person’s eyes and seeing pain and despair. It is touching to see how families have tried to make a home, squeezed into small spaces separated by curtains and wood, sharing two toilets, a urinal and a church hall with 38 other people.

Catholic Relief Services brought me to visit the refugees as a 2014 Egan Fellow. It’s a quick trip, with long days and lots of direct contact with people who tell similar stories.

Yet in the midst of tales of hardship are people with hope and kindness. Syrian Muslim women in northern Jordan expressed thanks for a church-supported school program. Their children performed for visitors, as seen in the video below. (Disclaimer: Cell phone videos in low light and shot by jetlagged journalists are not up to normal Catholic News Service standards.)

One Syrian couple invited us into their apartment even though the man’s sister-in-law had died that morning.

Teens from Mosul, Iraq,  pose for a selfie in Amman, Jordan, (CNS/Barb Fraze)

Teens from Mosul, Iraq, pose for a selfie in Amman, Jordan, (CNS/Barb Fraze)

And, in moments with laughter, Iraqi teens posed for selfies with journalists.

Throughout the last two days, families repeatedly asked if we could help them get resettled. One man even presented me with a list of the names and ages of his family members.

It’s heartbreaking to tell them that all I can do is tell their stories. So in the next few weeks, I will try to do just that for them.

Cardinal Pell calls for ‘no doctrinal back-flips’ at next family synod

By Robert Duncan
Catholic News Service

(UPDATED Monday, Oct. 27)

ROME (CNS) – Looking ahead to the October 2015 world Synod of Bishops on the family, Cardinal George Pell said the task for Catholics “over the next 12 months” is to explain “the necessity of conversion, the nature of the Mass,” and “the purity of heart the Scriptures require of us to receive holy Communion.”

Cardinal Pell (CNS/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Pell (CNS/Paul Haring)

The cardinal’s comments came days after the conclusion of the 2014 extraordinary synod on the family, which debated making it easier for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

“We will be counterproductive if we have anger or hate in our hearts, if we lapse into sterile polemics against a surprisingly small number of Catholic opponents,” the cardinal wrote.

Cardinal Pell’s remarks came in a homily he had prepared for a celebration of Mass in the extraordinary form Oct. 24 at Rome’s Church of the Most Holy Trinity of the Pilgrims.

The cardinal was unable to celebrate the liturgy, part of the Populus Summorum Pontificum pilgrimage to Rome for devotees of the traditional Latin Mass, on account of bronchitis. In an additional prepared text, he assured those present that his sickness was the only reason he was unable to attend.

In the cardinal’s absence, his personal secretary Father Mark Withoos celebrated the Mass and read the homily.

The “college of bishops and all synods work by consensus,” Cardinal Pell wrote. Before next October, Catholics have to work to build a consensus “out of the present divisions,” he wrote.

“Pastoral practice and teachings can only be change by consensus,” he wrote.

“Doctrine does develop, we understand truth more deeply, but there are no doctrinal back-flips in Catholic history,” the cardinal wrote. “The apostolic tradition announced first by Christ and founded in the Scriptures is the touchstone for truth and genuine pastoral practice.”

“We, and especially you young people, must live this in love, giving reason for your hope,” he wrote. “This is a unique opportunity, which we must seize in God’s name.”

Cardinal Pell also wrote about the importance of the papacy in defending and developing doctrine.

“The role of the successor of St. Peter has always been vital to Christian and Catholic life, especially as the touchstone of doctrinal fidelity and as a resolver of disputes, pastoral as well as doctrinal,” the cardinal wrote.

“The church is not built on the rock of Peter’s faith,” he wrote, “but on Peter himself, despite his faults and failings.”

“Pope Francis is the 266th pope and history has seen 37 false or antipopes,” he wrote.

“The story of the popes is stranger than fiction,” the cardinal wrote, and today “we have one of the more unusual popes in history, enjoying almost unprecedented popularity. He is doing a marvelous job backing the financial reforms,” he wrote

Cardinal Pell concluded his written remarks with a prayer “I was taught as a child: May the Lord preserve the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and give him life. Keep him safe on earth and deliver him not up into the hands of his enemies.”

Life of slain journalist James Foley celebrated across U.S.

By Sarah McCarthy

WASHINGTON  –   On the weekend that would have marked journalist James Foley’s 41st birthday Oct. 18, his life was instead celebrated in prayer services and memorials across the country.

Foley, a 1996 graduate of Marquette University in Milwaukee, was vocal about his faith and the strength he drew from his alma mater. In April 2011, as Foley was covering the raging civil war in Libya, militants loyal to Moammar Gadhafi captured him and two other journalists. They spent 44 days detained alongside other political prisoners. During this time, Foley was given the opportunity to call his mother. The conversation between mother and son, and Foley’s evident faith, were made public in an article Foley wrote for the fall 2011 edition of Marquette Magazine that was titled “Phone Call Home.”

James Foley pictured in 2011 photo in Boston. (CNS photo/Steve Senne, AP photo via Marquette University)

James Foley pictured in 2011 photo in Boston. (CNS photo/Steve Senne, AP photo via Marquette University)

“If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us,” he said. “It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”

Beginning Oct. 16, people at more than 20 universities across the country bore witness to that same sense of faith as they came together in remembrance of Foley, who was killed in Syria Aug.19. The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, or AJCU, invited its member institutions to recognize Foley’s contributions toward justice and freedom of the press and commemorate others killed in war by offering a Mass or interfaith prayer service in their honor. Fordham, Georgetown, Loyola Marymount and Marquette were just several of the universities that celebrated Foley’s legacy and his devotion to God.

In a press release about the initiative, the AJCU said Foley was “one of our own,” and the organization’s president, Jesuit Father Michael J. Sheeran, called him “an American hero.”

“We are proud to lead this initiative that unites our Jesuit colleges and universities in solidarity, and honors the memory of a Jesuit alumnus who was a true man for others,” he said.

At an Oct. 19 Mass celebrated at his hometown parish, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, N.H., Father Marc Montminy, a close family friend, said that “Jimmy played a pivotal role in the lives of so many” during his life. The priest said he always was sustained “by a deep faith” and his goodness called him to do for others and report the truth of their lives “so the entire world would know what was happening.”

In “Phone Call Home,” Foley related his experience as a captive and the numbness he felt after seeing one of his colleagues get killed. One of the more poignant effects of the piece is the realization, on the part of both Foley and the reader, that it was the enduring power of prayer that sustained Foley through his imprisonment.

“I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed,” Foley said. “It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Mary’s off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused.”

Foley also referenced a speech given by one of his friends at a Marquette vigil that was held for him before he was liberated in May 2011. (He returned home to New Hampshire but seven months later returned to Syria). He noted it was “just a glimpse of the efforts and prayers people were pouring forth.” He also expressed how praying with his colleague and fellow captive bolstered his faith under duress.

“It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone,” he said.

It is fitting, then, that to remember Foley’s humble service in Christ, hundreds of people gathered together to continue that conversation, manifesting the indelible power of prayer in times of peril, loss, and celebration.

German Cardinal Marx shares his perspective on synod

Cardinal Marx (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Cardinal Marx (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Most members of the Synod of Bishops on the family are enjoying the strangely warm Roman weather; only members of the groups drafting the synod’s message to the Catholic faithful and drafting its final report were working this morning.

But the media is still here in force and the Vatican press office wanted to give them more views of what happened inside and what will happen next. Tomorrow morning synod members will vote on the message and, in the evening, they will vote on the report.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, president of the German bishops’ conference, spoke to reporters today and focused on the report as the final step only of this stage of the discussion. For the next year, Catholic bishops around the world will be asked to study and discuss the themes and consult with their faithful in preparation for the next step: the world Synod of Bishops in October 2015.

Cardinal Marx was one of those bishops at the synod looking particularly for new ways to reach out to Catholics living in family situations that do not meet the ideals taught by the Catholic Church. As a representative of the German bishops’ conference, for example, he said a significant majority of German bishops voted to back “the question” raised by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, who asked about possible ways to admit to Communion some Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried, but who do not have an annulment.

Still, he said, he is not disappointed by the discussion or the opposition of some synod members to the question. The discussion was important, it was mature and, he said, it deals with matters that will continue to be studied by pastors, theologians and canon lawyers.

Interestingly enough, the whole “three steps forward, two steps back” has Catholic roots. It’s part of a procession in Echternach, Luxembourg.

Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx said, has not called two synods simply so bishops listen to one another and then decide, “we can only repeat what we have always said.”

Cardinal Marx told reporters the synod process is important for helping the Catholic Church and its pastors find more compassionate, accurate language for its teaching on morality. It must be clear and faithful to the church’s tradition, he said, must it also must be realistic about how the way many men and women live is not completely good or completely bad.

Exclusion is not the language of the church,” he said. The church cannot say divorced and civilly remarried couples are “second-class” Christians and it cannot say there is no way for a homosexual person to experience the Gospel.

‘Adopt a Christian’ campaign to help Iraqi refugees

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has called repeatedly for prayers and concrete aid from the world’s faithful for those hit by the continuing crises in Iraq and Syria — a call just echoed recently by hundreds of the world’s bishops attending the extraordinary synod on the family.

After convening a high-level summit of Vatican diplomats Oct. 2-4 to discuss the dramatic situation of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, the pope will be asking a formal meeting of cardinals Oct. 20 to look at the summit’s findings.

Catholics around the world have been mobilizing, too, as church leaders in the region keep speaking out for an end to the violence, propaganda and funding of terrorists.

AsiaNews, a Catholic news outlet that’s part of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (an Italy-based missionary order), launched an “Adopt a Christian” campaign this summer, for those people forced to flee from their homes in Mosul, Iraq, and the Nineveh plain because of extremist militants sweeping the region.

They’ve collected nearly $900,000 — all of it going to bishops from the Catholic and Eastern churches who have distributed it among their internally displaced and refugee parishioners.

girl iraq

A displaced Iraqi child, who fled from violence by Islamic State militants in Mosul, sits with her family outside their tent at a camp in Irbil Sept. 14. (CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters)

The campaign is still on, said Father Bernardo Cervellera, the head of AsiaNews, and it will continue as long as the emergency lasts. He said just $6 can help feed one person a day, while $200 will last for one month.

He said the outpouring of support is a blow to the “globalization of indifference” with thousands of donations coming in from all over the world including China, Taiwan, Switzerland and Brazil.

Catholic Relief Services also gives people an easy way to support families affected by violence in Syria.

Chaldean Bishop Amel Nona of Mosul, who is with refugees in Kurdistan, has called for a permanent political solution because:

It is no longer possible to go on living in tents, or in public parks, or in schools because the season is changing and winter is knocking at the door. We have a lot of homeless people and not even a roof to cover them.

We are trying to find a solution to the housing problem, but we cannot accommodate everyone because the numbers are huge: we are not a powerful international humanitarian organization, although all our Christians insistently ask us to help them.

Our possibilities are limited because the whole country is going through a difficult phase of religious and ethnic division, accompanied by a real civil war and mutual distrust among the political and social parties. …

Once again I thank you all, praying to the Lord that our crisis is an opportunity to unite all Christians, making us active in our faith.
May the Lord bless you.

+ Amel NONA
Archbishop of Mosul of the Chaldeans
September 14, 2014



Synod work continuing in small groups

VATICAN CITY — As members, experts and observers at the Synod of Bishops on the family meet in small groups to discuss the midterm report and make suggestions — some major, some minor — for improving it, three group leaders met the press.

Jesuit Father Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the groups are formulating “a systematic reaction to the relatio post disceptationem (the midterm report) in such a way as to provide material for the drafting of the relatio sinodi,” which is scheduled to be voted upon Saturday and form the basis for preparing for the world Synod of Bishops on the family next year.

Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., said his group had finished its work this morning; a Vatican official said a couple other groups also finished — and so get the afternoon and evening off.

Archbishop Kurtz, Spanish Cardinal Lluis Martinez Sistach of Barcelona and Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, each said their groups insisted on improving the relatio by highlighting the beauty and the powerful witness provided by strong Catholic families who are living in accordance with church teaching.

They also insisted their groups are trying to preserve and strengthen the relatio’s missionary approach and emphasis, which consists in reaching out to all families, listening to them, affirming those qualities that are good and accompanying them in growing toward holiness.

Asked whether they were swayed by negative reaction to the relatio, particularly reaction from organized groups fearing the relatio’s language marked a watering down of church teaching, the three claimed no.

Cardinal Sistach said, “We are all working with great freedom,” speaking from the heart, listening to one another as Pope Francis had encouraged them and praying for guidance. “We are seeking the will of God, not the will of any groups.”

However, he said, his group is making some changes in every section of the relatio. In addition to adding stronger language about the beauty of marriage, he said, his group wants to see an affirmation of “the Gospel of life,” since the human person is born into a family, should be protected and raised within a family and is watched over by the family until natural death.

Archbishop Fisichella said his group is asking for the inclusion of something mentioned in the synod hall, but not in the relatio: a request that couples seeking an annulment are not charged money for the process in order to ensure that, “when speaking of a sacrament, there is not the minimum suspicion” that money is the aim of the process. A second addition, he said, is recognition that couples who adopt a child are, in fact, making an act of love and charity.

Asked if their groups are making any mention of “Humanae Vitae,” the 1968 teaching on married love affirming the church’s ban on artificial contraception, the three synod members said yes, but the problem was how to educate Catholic consciences and how to encourage more of them to learn about natural family planning.

The synod members also were asked if with all the freedom to speak and the humility of listening to others the tradition of disputatio – a disciplined, but not always sweet debate — had disappeared. Fortunately, no, Archbishop Fisichella said. Listening to about 200 four-minute speeches, disputes are “an element of growth” and are an important antidote to the discussion being “insanely boring.”

The synod’s halfway mark; “the drama continues”

VATICAN CITY — Meeting the press after the reading of the synod’s midterm report, leaders of the assembly told reporters the document is very much a work in progress and that already that morning many synod members suggested changes and phrases that need more precision or greater study.

Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, the synod relator who led the drafting of the report and read it to the assembly this morning, said it was a huge challenge, for example, to take a theme 30 bishops spoke about — in different languages and with different terminology — and synthesize it.

Philippine Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle, one of the synod presidents, described the report as “a mirror,” reflecting the first week of discussion. However, he said, it is a provisional document and will be the object of discussion in small groups, which will propose amendments to the text. “The drama continues,” he said.

Cardinal Erdo said there already were calls from synod members to include in the text a recognition that there exist “disordered forms of cohabitation,” but there were even more calls to give greater emphasis to “the special value of marriage lived according to God’s plan.”

Even once the synod concludes Oct. 19 — with the final report being voted on Oct. 18 — the work will not be over. Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte of Chieti-Vasto, special secretary of the synod, told reporters that the hope is that bishops around the world will discuss the final report with their people, especially married and other lay Catholics, and bring their reflections to the 2015 world Synod of Bishops on the family.

Several questions focused on the midterm report’s seeming openness to gay people and to Catholics who have been divorced and civilly remarried; the bishops were asked about the lack of clear-cut statements.

Archbishop Forte told them, “There is always a risk, especially for those called to be a teacher or a prophet, to want to cut things with a hatchet,” responding with a simple yes or no. But the complexity of a situation must be studied first. “One who does not use this logic risks judging the person rather than understanding them,” and understanding is the aim of the synod.

A recurring theme at the news conference was how the synod on the family reflected or continued in the line of the Second Vatican Council, which met 1962-1965.

Cardinal Tagle said the experience was like the Second Vatican Council in that it was striving to be “a church that is not self-absorbed, a church that knows how to exist as a missionary church, listening and dialoguing with the contemporary world. I think that is what the synod fathers were affirming.”

Archbishop Forte said taking seriously the idea that the church on earth can grow in holiness means “to place ourselves in a position of listening, which is one of the most beautiful experiences we are living in this synod.”

The listening, he said, applies also to the church’s attitude toward members who are not fully living church teaching on marriage and the family, yet are trying to love another person faithfully and responsibly.

The sense of the document is to “welcome the positive wherever it is found. And it certainly does exist,” he said. “To discern, to appreciate all that is positive in these experiences is an exercise of intellectual honesty and of pastoral charity.”


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