Caritas Sri Lanka struggles to help displaced war refugees

Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils remain in camps for internally displaced people in northern Sri Lanka. (CNS/Reuters)

An estimated 300,000 Sri Lankans remain displaced as war refugees nearly 10 months after the end of a vicious 25-year civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces, according to Father George Dhanasegaran Sigamony, national director of Caritas Sri Lanka.

Affiliated with Caritas Internationalis, the church’s worldwide relief and development agency, Caritas Sri Lanka is providing assistance while pushing the Sri Lankan government to let people return home from the northeastern corner of the country where the war ended.

Father Sigamony told Catholic News Service during a mid-March visit to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services office that the challenges his agency faces are nearly as great as those confronting relief agencies in Haiti following the earthquake of Jan. 12.

“Unfortunately the supplies are limited,” he said, explaining that dire situation in the island nation off the southeast coast of India has gotten little notice in recent months as other pressing humanitarian disasters grab the world’s attention.

Compounding the situation is the fact that thousands of land mines remain buried throughout the war zone, posing grave danger to anyone moving through the countryside on foot.

The Sri Lankan government has been of little help because most of its attention is focused on the upcoming parliamentary election scheduled for April 8, leaving the Catholic Church and a few other remaining aid agencies to provide assistance, he said.

The Catholic Church has remained with the refugees since the final weeks of the war in June, Father Sigamony said. Many priests and sisters were left homeless by the war and remain in the camps ministering to people in a variety of ways.

Most of the aid Caritas provides comes in the form of food and bicycles, the primary form of transportation for people in villages and outlying areas. But with the need so great, Father Sigamony said the agency is barely able to help the thousands who desperately seeking to return home.

“We need the helping hands from the international community,” Father Sigamony said. “We appeal to all the generous hearts.”

Photos from Sunday’s immigration rally in Washington

(CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

We’ve posted a selection of Nancy Wiechec’s photos from last Sunday’s immigration reform Mass and march in Washington in a slideshow that you can view here. (We also have a link to the slideshow from our homepage.) The Mass, at St. Aloysius Church north of the U.S. Capitol, was celebrated by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, long a leader in immigration rights and Hispanic ministry.

U.S. bishops issue statement on health care reform

Cardinal George is interviewed March 23. (CNS/Bob Roller)

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this afternoon issued a statement on the health care reform bill approved by the House of Representatives on Sunday and signed into law by President Barack Obama this morning. According to an accompanying news release, the USCCB said the statement, by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, USCCB president, had been approved unanimously by the 32-member USCCB Administrative Committee, which by coincidence was meeting in Washington for its regular March meeting. The committee is a panel of bishops which conducts USCCB business between the bishops’ general meetings.

The news release also said Cardinal George issued the statement “moments after President Barack Obama signed the Senate version of health care reform legislation approved by the House of Representatives.”

The full statement:

For nearly a century, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for reform of our health care system so that all may have access to the care that recognizes and affirms their human dignity. Christian discipleship means, “working to ensure that all people have access to what makes them fully human and fosters their human dignity” (United States Catechism for Adults, page 454). Included among those elements is the provision of necessary and appropriate health care.

For too long, this question has gone unaddressed in our country. Often, while many had access to excellent medical treatment, millions of others including expectant mothers, struggling families or those with serious medical or physical problems were left unable to afford the care they needed. As Catholic bishops, we have expressed our support for efforts to address this national and societal shortcoming. We have spoken for the poorest and most defenseless among us. Many elements of the health care reform measure signed into law by the president address these concerns and so help to fulfill the duty that we have to each other for the common good. We are bishops, and therefore pastors and teachers. In that role, we applaud the effort to expand health care to all.

Nevertheless, for whatever good this law achieves or intends, we as Catholic bishops have opposed its passage because there is compelling evidence that it would expand the role of the federal government in funding and facilitating abortion and plans that cover abortion. The statute appropriates billions of dollars in new funding without explicitly prohibiting the use of these funds for abortion, and it provides federal subsidies for health plans covering elective abortions. Its failure to preserve the legal status quo that has regulated the government’s relation to abortion, as did the original bill adopted by the House of Representatives last November, could undermine what has been the law of our land for decades and threatens the consensus of the majority of Americans: that federal funds not be used for abortions or plans that cover abortions. Stranger still, the statute forces all those who choose federally subsidized plans that cover abortion to pay for other peoples’ abortions with their own funds. If this new law is intended to prevent people from being complicit in the abortions of others, it is at war with itself.

We share fully the admirable intention of President Obama expressed in his pending Executive Order, where he states, “it is necessary to establish an adequate enforcement mechanism to ensure that federal funds are not used for abortion services.” However, the fact that an Executive Order is necessary to clarify the legislation points to deficiencies in the statute itself. We do not understand how an Executive Order, no matter how well intentioned, can substitute for statutory provisions.

The statute is also profoundly flawed because it has failed to include necessary language to provide essential conscience protections (both within and beyond the abortion context). As well, many immigrant workers and their families could be left worse off since they will not be allowed to purchase health coverage in the new exchanges to be created, even if they use their own money.

Many in Congress and the administration, as well as individuals and groups in the Catholic community, have repeatedly insisted that there is no federal funding for abortion in this statute and that strong conscience protection has been assured. Analyses that are being published separately show this not to be the case, which is why we oppose it in its current form. We and many others will follow the government’s implementation of health care reform and will work to ensure that Congress and the administration live up to the claims that have contributed to its passage. We believe, finally, that new legislation to address its deficiencies will almost certainly be required.

As bishops, we wish to recognize the principled actions of the pro-life members of Congress from both parties, in the House and the Senate, who have worked courageously to create legislation that respects the principles outlined above. They have often been vilified and have worked against great odds.

As bishops of the Catholic Church, we speak in the name of the church and for the Catholic faith itself. The Catholic faith is not a partisan agenda, and we take this opportunity to recommit ourselves to working for health care which truly and fully safeguards the life, dignity, conscience and health of all, from the child in the womb to those in their last days on earth.

How immigration marchers made his day

Near the end of a long day of events for the March for America immigration reform rally and march  (and here) on March 21, a sign caught my eye.

The sign held by the man near the playground in Lincoln Park stood out even among the day’s wide variety of slogans, posters, T-shirts and banners: “Montanans for Kindness,” read his folded-out pizza box (extra large, I’d guess) in bright Crayon colors.

Turns out this Montanan had been standing there for something like two hours, cheering on the thousands and thousands of people from across the country who were crossing the park. For about another hour I stood there with him, chatting a bit, but mostly watching the passing parade of people marching from the immigration reform rally on the National Mall to RFK Stadium, where their buses waited to take them home.

Participants were of all ages, but a majority were probably under 35.  Nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis walked with their people. Many, many families pushed strollers. A handful pushed wheelchairs. Some people stopped to rest for a few minutes on the park benches. Families paused to let the kids climb around on the playground equipment for a bit. 

They carried American flags and flags from their home countries. Here and there, someone using a five-gallon bucket as a drum would keep a rhythm for chants of “Si, se puede,” or “Yes, we can.” People sitting outside homes they passed on East Capitol Street would wave and join in the cheering. Some raised their wine glasses in a toast. The mood was optimistic and upbeat.

CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

The walkers passed unknowingly through this park named for Abraham Lincoln, with its memorial to the Emancipation Proclamation. Most walked past the giant statue of civil rights leader and educator Mary McLeod Bethune without realizing the parallels between her work and their goals.

“Mr. Montana,” a community organizer, explained that he’d encountered the immigration marchers as he returned from participating in a rally at the Capitol in support of the health care reform bill. As he headed to where he was staying near Lincoln Park, people from the immigration rally had started to walk toward the stadium, about three miles from the Mall.

“I thought, ‘This isn’t very many people,'” he said, and decided to go back out and cheer them on. Turns out that at 3:30 he’d only seen the leading edge of people from the immigration event. The majority didn’t even start walking from the Mall until 5 p.m., by which time tens of thousands had already set out, making their way through this historic park and past the Montanan with his cheery pizza box sign.

People who noticed the “Montanans for Kindness” sign smiled, waved, thanked him for his sign and his support. He grinned and waved, and echoed every chorus of “Si, se puede.”

In the third hour of the procession, with no end in sight of the swarms of people coming up over the hill, he grinned some more. “This has made my day, my week, my decade,” he said. “This is great.”

Year for Priests: Gracious living

By Basilian Father Chris Valka
One in a series

Once a month, the boys of Catholic Central gather for an all-school Mass, often celebrating one of our many patrons.  Being that the school mascot is the shamrock, St. Patrick was a significant day of celebration, and so I was surprised that our local superior chose one of our retired priests, who is very rarely at the school (and who the students do not know), to preside over the celebration.

Throughout the Mass, it was quite evident that this man was moved by the opportunity to be a priest and teacher to the students once again.  Tears of joy rolled down his face at the end of the homily, causing many of us to take notice. And his words of wisdom opened a window of time for all those who never knew him as a physics teacher.

Early the next day, I saw this priest in one of our common rooms at the house and thanked him for his words, citing a few specific nuggets that I found particularly meaningful.  To this he responded that I was the first of the priests to thank him or comment on his homily.  I paused.  I was immediately saddened that no one else had taken the time to say “thank you.”

I have often wondered why praise and gratitude is so hard to come by.  Why are we so quick to criticize and so slow to affirm?

Growing up, my father and I called such affirmations “warm fuzzies” and often solicited them from each other.  Some might recall that stores used to sell little fuzzy balls with bubbly eyes, feet and a positive message on them such as “You’re Terrific” or “Great Job!”  My father often came home from work a bit envious of us, as kids, because our teachers would give them out on special occasions.  He jokingly commented that we should give “warm fuzzies” out to everyone, not just kids.  To this day, the two of us will still phone each other and ask for a “warm fuzzy” when the day has been particularly tough.

Perhaps for this reason, I have always believed that gratitude is one of the great secrets of the spiritual life (a secret, not because it is unknown, but because it so hard to implement).  Gratitude is the result of a life lived in grace, but it does not come without awareness on our part.  Gratitude is not a simple emotion; rather it is a learned discipline to recognize that ALL of life is “gift.”

Sometimes we forget the implicit connection between grace and gratitude.  Notice that even the adjective commonly used to describe a grateful person is “gracious.”  And I wonder —  how often do we used this word to describe those around us, or even ourselves?

Indeed, I was bit saddened when I left the common room that morning, but not simply for my friend.  Throughout the day, I reflected on how often I find myself quietly complaining (even if only in my mind) about the events of my day.  Yes, I say “thank you” and give God praise each day, but if I were to tally the thoughts of gratitude and thoughts of complaint, I wonder how my sheet would look?  I think I will title it “Gracious Living” and see how I do.

Maybe I can even find a few “warm fuzzies”, like the ones I used to get in school, and give them to God.  Who knows, next time you come to the parish, you may find one next to the statue of the Sacred Heart or on the staff desks at the office.

Father Chris Valka, CSB, was ordained a priest for the Congregation of St. Basil last May and is teaching at Detroit Catholic Central High School in Michigan.

Click here for more in this series.

Vatican on Twitter

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican this weekend opened six Twitter accounts, including one in English.

It’s exciting news for those who have pushed for better use of new media at the Vatican. Interestingly, the Twitter presence was launched the day Pope Benedict published his letter to Irish Catholics on priestly sex abuse. As a result the first nine Vatican tweets were on the sex abuse issue, mainly citing past papal statements.

In the future, we’re promised, Twitter will be used by Vatican Radio and other Vatican media outlets when there’s particularly important news.

Getting the Twitter accounts off the ground took a while, and came only after other users grabbed the Vatican moniker, apparently without anyone’s authorization. We blogged about this pseudo-Vatican Twitter feed in January, and a week later it fell silent.

The Web addresses for the real Vatican Twitter feeds: for English, for Spanish, for Italian, for German, for French and for Portuguese.

On eve of health care vote, bishops weigh in

On Saturday evening the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued the following news release:

Bishops to House of Representatives: Fix Flaws or Vote No on Health Reform Bill

WASHINGTON—The U.S. bishops urged the House of Representatives to fix flaws in health care legislation or vote against its passage in a March 20 letter to House members. The letter was signed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, New York, chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, chair on the Committee on Migration. The letter follows.

Dear Representative:

(Click here for full release)