Text of Pope Francis’ homily at Christmas Mass

VATICAN CITY — Here is the English translation of Pope Francis’ homily at Christmas Mass Dec. 24 in St. Peter’s Basilica:

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Is 9:1). “An angel of the Lord appeared to [the shepherds] and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk 2:9). This is how the liturgy of this holy Christmas night presents to us the birth of the Savior: as the light which pierces and dispels the deepest darkness. The presence of the Lord in the midst of his people cancels the sorrow of defeat and the misery of slavery, and ushers in joy and happiness.

We too, in this blessed night, have come to the house of God. We have passed through the darkness which envelops the earth, guided by the flame of faith which illuminates our steps, and enlivened by the hope of finding the “great light”. By opening our hearts, we also can contemplate the miracle of that child-sun who, arising from on high, illuminates the horizon.

 

(CNS photo by Paul Haring)

(CNS photo by Paul Haring)

The origin of the darkness which envelops the world is lost in the night of the ages. Let us think back to that dark moment when the first crime of humanity was committed, when the hand of Cain, blinded by envy, killed his brother Abel (cf. Gen 4:8). As a result, the unfolding of the centuries has been marked by violence, wars, hatred and oppression. But God, who placed a sense of expectation within man made in his image and likeness, was waiting. He waited for so long that perhaps at a certain point it seemed he should have given up. But he could not give up because he could not deny himself (cf. 2 Tim 2:13). Therefore he continued to wait patiently in the face of the corruption of man and peoples.

Through the course of history, the light that shatters the darkness reveals to us that God is Father and that his patient fidelity is stronger than darkness and corruption. This is the message of Christmas night. God does not know outbursts of anger or impatience; he is always there, like the father in the parable of the prodigal son, waiting to catch from afar a glimpse of the lost son as he returns.

Isaiah’s prophecy announces the rising of a great light which breaks through the night. This light is born in Bethlehem and is welcomed by the loving arms of Mary, by the love of Joseph, by the wonder of the shepherds. When the angels announced the birth of the Redeemer to the shepherds, they did so with these words: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). The “sign” is the humility of God taken to the extreme; it is the love with which, that night, he assumed our frailty, our suffering, our anxieties, our desires and our limitations. The message that everyone was expecting, that everyone was searching for in the depths of their souls, was none other than the tenderness of God: God who looks upon us with eyes full of love, who accepts our poverty, God who is in love with our smallness.

On this holy night, while we contemplate the Infant Jesus just born and placed in the manger, we are invited to reflect. How do we welcome the tenderness of God? Do I allow myself to be taken up by God, to be embraced by him, or do I prevent him from drawing close? “But I am searching for the Lord” – we could respond. Nevertheless, what is most important is not seeking him, but rather allowing him to find me and caress me with tenderness. The question put to us simply by the Infant’s presence is: do I allow God to love me? More so, do we have the courage to welcome with tenderness the difficulties and problems of those who are near to us, or do we prefer impersonal solutions, perhaps effective but devoid of the warmth of the Gospel? How much the world needs tenderness today!

The Christian response cannot be different from God’s response to our smallness. Life must be met with goodness, with meekness. When we realize that God is in love with our smallness, that he made himself small in order to better encounter us, we cannot help but open our hearts to him, and beseech him: “Lord, help me to be like you, give me the grace of tenderness in the most difficult circumstances of life, give me the grace of closeness in the face of every need, of meekness in every conflict”.

Dear brothers and sisters, on this holy night we contemplate the Nativity scene: there “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1). People who were unassuming, open to receiving the gift of God, were the ones who saw this light. This light was not seen, however, by the arrogant, the proud, by those who made laws according to their own personal measures, who were closed off to others. Let us look to the crib and pray, asking the Blessed Mother: “O Mary, show us Jesus!”

It takes more than two to tango for Pope Francis’ birthday

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(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

 

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis always asks for prayers, especially for his birthday, but this year he also got some tango.

Thousands of tango dancers, mostly from Italy, flocked to St. Peter’s Square to wave their white scarves “A Tango for Pope Francis” and cheer along with tens of thousands of other people at the Wednesday general audience.

 

Before the general audience, children gave him flowers, presents and handmade cards:

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screengrab of Pope Francis at his Wednesday general audience in St. Peter’s Square. He’s admiring a handmade birthday card from a child. Dec. 17, 2014.

He got Mylar party balloons attached to cute babies:

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But best of all had to be the birthday cake topped with cherries and six (?) candles, that he promptly blew out.

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The cake came courtesy of a large group of seminarians, who also had the foresight to provide some mate’ too: mate

But an Italian tango dancer had a better idea, Cristina Camorani organized a “Street Tango Flashmob” over the Internet inviting people to what she hoped would become the “Biggest Milonga in the World.”

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Milonga, an older form of tango with a faster rhythm, is the pope’s favorite dance style. He has said he used to dance the tango when he was young, adding, “It’s something that comes from within.”

At the end of the general audience, Pope Francis greeted the tango dancers and said it seemed like the square was “for a 2 x 4,” which is mysterious tango-lingo referring to rhythm.

tango shout

After the audience, participants heeled up for a warm-up dance in front of St. Peter’s Square before the big showcase event that afternoon.

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A dancer buckles up for non-stop tango outside St. Peter’s Square Dec. 17, 2014. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

 

Vatican releases report on U.S. women religious

VATICAN CITY — A massive, detailed Vatican-ordered investigation of U.S. communities of women religious ended with a call to the women themselves to continue discerning how best to live the Gospel in fidelity to their orders’ founding ideals while facing steeply declining numbers and a rapidly aging membership.

Although initially seen by many religious and lay Catholics as a punitive measure, the apostolic visitation concluded with the publication Dec. 16 of a 5,000-word final report summarizing the problems and challenges the women themselves see in their communities and thanking them for their service to the church and to society, especially the poor.

The visitation process, carried out between 2009 and 2012 with detailed questionnaires and on-site visits, mainly by other women religious, “sought to convey the caring support of the church in respectful, sister-to-sister dialogue,” says the final report by the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life.

 

File photo of Pope Francis with Archbishop Rodriguez Carballo and Cardinal Braz de Aviz

File photo of Pope Francis with Archbishop Rodriguez Carballo and Cardinal Braz de Aviz (L’Osservatore Romano)

The process attempted to help the Vatican “and the sisters themselves to be more cognizant of their current situation and challenges in order to formulate realistic, effective plans for the future,” said the report, signed by Cardinal Joao Braz de Aviz, prefect of the congregation for religious, and Archbishop Jose Rodriguez Carballo, secretary.

In summarizing the results, the congregation called for special attention in several areas, including: formation programs for new members; the personal, liturgical and common prayer life of members; ensuring their spiritual practices and ministries are fully in harmony with church teaching “about God, creation, the Incarnation and redemption” in Christ; strengthening community life, especially for members living on their own or with just one other sister; living their vow of poverty while wisely administering financial resources; and strengthening communion within the church, especially with the bishops and Vatican officials.

The Vatican, the report says, “is well aware that the apostolic visitation was met with apprehension and suspicion by some women religious. This resulted in a refusal, on the part of some institutes, to collaborate fully in the process.”

“While the lack of full cooperation was a painful disappointment for us,” the congregation writes, “we use this present opportunity to invite all religious institutes to accept our willingness to engage in respectful and fruitful dialogue with them.”

“A number of sisters conveyed to the apostolic visitator a desire for greater recognition and support of the contribution of women religious to the church on the part of its pastors,” the report says. “They noted the ongoing need for honest dialogue with bishops and clergy as a means of clarifying their role in the church and strengthening their witness and effectiveness as women faithful to the church’s teaching and mission.”

In addition, it says, “some spoke of their perception of not having enough input into pastoral decisions which affect them or about which they have considerable experience and expertise.”

The current Year of Consecrated Life, the congregation says, should be “a graced opportunity for all of us within the church — religious, clergy and laity — to take those steps toward forgiveness and reconciliation, which will offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion to all.”

The former prefect of the congregation, Cardinal Franc Rode, ordered the visitation in 2008, saying its aim would be to study the community, prayer and apostolic life of the orders to learn why the number of religious women in the United States had declined so sharply since the 1960s.

Almost a year into the study, Cardinal Rode told Vatican Radio that the investigation was a response to concerns — including some expressed by an unnamed “important representative of the U.S. church” — regarding “some irregularities or omissions in American religious life. Most of all, you could say, it involves a certain secular mentality that has spread in these religious families and, perhaps, also a certain ‘feminist’ spirit.”

As the process began, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents about 80 percent of U.S. women religious, questioned what its officials considered a lack of full disclosure about what motivated the visitation.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s investigation of the LCWR, begun in 2008, was a separate process; in 2011, the congregation ordered a reform of the organization, saying “the current doctrinal and pastoral situation of LCWR is grave and a matter of serious concern, also given the influence the LCWR exercises on religious congregations in other parts of the world.”

At a news conference presenting the report Dec. 16, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life invited both the president of the LCWR and the chairwoman of the smaller U.S. Council of Major Superiors of Women Religious to address the media. They were joined by Mother Mary Clare Millea, superior general of the Apostles of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the apostolic visitor appointed by the Vatican.

The congregation’s final report says that while apostolic visits are “a normal instrument of governance” designed to “assist the group in question to improve the way in which it carries out its mission in the life of the church,” the visitation of U.S. women religious “was unprecedented” in many ways.

“It involved 341 religious institutes of both diocesan and pontifical right, to which approximately 50,000 women religious throughout the United States belong,” the report says. Only communities of cloistered nuns were excluded.

While not news, the report presents striking statistics: “Today, the median age of apostolic women religious in the United States is in the mid- to late-70s. The current number of approximately 50,000 apostolic women religious is a decline of about 125,000 since the mid-1960s, when the numbers of religious in the United States had reached their peak.”

“It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history,” the report says. “The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s, after which it began to decline as many of the sisters who had entered during the peak years left religious life, the remaining sisters aged and considerably fewer women joined religious institutes.”

Citing a wide variety of founding principles, ministries and community sizes, the congregation’s final report notes an overall trend of “aging and diminishment” in the number of members.

Most religious communities, it says, “are expending considerable spiritual and material energies in the area of vocation promotion,” but many of them are obtaining results “not commensurate with the expectations and efforts.”

“Vocation and formation personnel interviewed noted that candidates often desire the experience of living in formative communities, and many wish to be externally recognizable as consecrated women,” it says, in an apparent reference to the wearing of traditional habits. “This is a particular challenge in institutes whose current lifestyle does not emphasize these aspects of religious life.”

The congregation’s report does not make specific recommendations other than urging the entire church “to offer fervent prayer for religious vocations” and to ask religious communities to ensure they provide “a solid, theological, human, cultural, spiritual and pastoral preparation” for religious life.

Doggone it! Still no top spot for Spot?

VATICAN CITY — Whether animals go to heaven or not has been an eternal question.

boy and dog

A boy carrying a dog in a live Nativity scene at the Church of St. Alfonso Maria dei Liguori in Rome Jan. 6, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

And a supposedly definitive answer was reported to have come from Pope Francis.

But it turns out the pope-quote [“One day we will see our pets in the eternity of Christ.”] was something Pope Paul VI reportedly said decades ago, and that the major mix-up in the English press the past week was a classic case of what happens when a whole story is just based on someone else’s headline. This story tracks how the confusion came about.

But people still want to know: What does the church teach about paradise for pets?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that animals are destined for the common good of humanity and give glory to God by their mere existence.

Pope Benedict XVI, who is considered an animal lover, was clear. He talked about baptism as a form of “new life” that is snuffed out in a “second death” by the uniquely human capacity to sin:

Whereas for other creatures who are not called to eternity, death means solely the end of existence on earth, in us sin creates an abyss in which we risk being engulfed forever unless the Father who is in Heaven stretches out his hand to us.

The church teaches that unlike human beings, animals lack rational souls and free will. Free will is the capacity human beings have to cooperate with God’s grace and join in the eternal joy of heaven.

However, and this was Pope Francis’ larger point Nov. 26, because all of creation is loved by God, the day of resurrection means people will be part of a whole resurrected universe, which suggests there may be animals in heaven.

In a column for CNS a few years ago, Father Ken Doyle answered a reader’s question about pets in heaven:

The most honest answer is that we do not know. What our faith does tell us, though, is that the joys of heaven are beyond compare, beyond our poor power even to imagine them. So, it’s safe to say that if in heaven you need your pets to be happy, they’ll be right there with you.

Father John Dietzen gave a thorough response in a CNS column back in 1998 (hat-tip to an attentive reader with an awesome memory):

No one matches St Augustine, however, in the assumption that all the beautiful and enjoyable things of nature, plants, animals, food, the skies, all the delights that image God and lead us to him in this life will do so even more perfectly in the next.

Others have pointed to Noah’s ark as a sign that God intends to save all of creation and the Book of Revelation describes four (strange) animals around the throne of God.

A guide to the heart of Pope Francis … what makes him tick?

VATICAN CITY — If you are looking to unwrap the mystery of Pope Francis, Msgr. Paul Tighe of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications says there is a new book just out that helps people “get to know this man a little better, and perhaps more importantly for him, to let us know from where he draws his strength, where is the heart of this man, this mystery.”

Pope Francis in the Vatican's apostolic library, Feb. 24, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis in the Vatican’s apostolic library, Feb. 24, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Andrea Tornielli, a Vatican expert and director of the online news site, Vatican Insider, said this new book also tells people “what is essential in the life of a Christian,” not with abstract truths, but with written examples from Pope Francis and beautiful color photographs showing “these works in action.”

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Pope Francis in Cagliari, Sardinia, Sept. 22, 2013. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The new book that Tornielli and Msgr. Tighe are praising is none other than “Pope Francis: A Guide to God’s Time,” the latest (first!) book jointly published by Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican publishing house, L.E.V. They spoke last night at special presentation marking the book’s launch.

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From the left: CNS senior correspondent, Cindy Wooden; Vatican expert, Andrea Tornielli: Msgr. Paul Tighe, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications; CNS senior photographer, Paul Haring. The panel presented “Pope Francis: A Guide to God’s Time,” a new book jointly published by Catholic News Service/USCCB and LEV. Dec. 3, 2014 in Rome.

Written by senior Vatican correspondent Cindy Wooden and illustrated with 91 stunning photographs by senior photographer Paul Haring, Msgr. Tighe said the authors let the pope “tell us a little about himself and the most fundamental parts.”

This nice promotional video below has the authors themselves explaining some of their discoveries and insights about Pope Francis.

And this Vatican Radio interview with Cindy Wooden gives a lot of interesting background.

 

 

Msgr. Tighe ended his presentation with an appeal to all Catholic communicators to reflect more of what Cindy and Paul’s book does:

“We have a pope who has hope, who knows of joy, who knows of Christ. Our job is to help other people — through him — find the Christ who is the root of our joy and our hope.”

Pope Francis during the Corpus Christi observance May 30, 2013 in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis during the Corpus Christi observance May 30, 2013 in Rome. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Eeyore (and girlfriend) come to Rome

VATICAN CITY — Popes often receive unusual gifts, and today Pope Francis was given Thea and Noah — two Italian donkeys.

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Pope Francis received two donkeys at the Vatican Dec. 3, 2014 from the founder of Eurolactis, a European cooperative that supplies donkey’s milk. (CNS photo courtesy of Eurolactis via Osservatore Romano).

Eurolactis, a European cooperative that produces donkey’s milk, donated the donkeys to the pope today when the company’s founder, Pierluigi Orunesu, met with the pope during his Wednesday general audience.

In addition to its “cosmetic benefits,” donkey’s milk is used to feed children, newborns and premature infants who are allergic or intolerant to cow’s milk because it is easier to digest and rich in nutrients.

That is why Eurolactis also donated 21 gallons of donkey’s milk to the pope’s own pediatric hospital, Bambino Gesu.

According to Orunescu,  Pope Francis told him that he was fed donkey’s milk as a child!

Eurolactis says that Thea and Noah will head off to the papal farm in Castel Gandolfo, which might mean donkey’s milk could someday be added to the papal menu?

 

Pope removes Cardinal Burke from Vatican post

Cardinal Burke leaves concluding session of extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at Vatican

Cardinal Burke leaves concluding session of extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family at Vatican. (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis has removed U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, 66, as head of the Vatican’s highest court and named him to a largely ceremonial post with a chivalric religious order.

Cardinal Burke, formerly prefect of the Apostolic Signature, will now serve as cardinal patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta, the Vatican announced Nov. 8.

The move had been widely expected since an Italian journalist reported it in September, and Cardinal Burke himself confirmed it to reporters last month.

It is highly unusual for a pope to remove an official of the cardinal’s stature and age without assigning him comparable responsibilities elsewhere. By church law, cardinals in the Vatican must offer to resign at 75, but often continue in office for several more years. As usual when announcing personnel changes other than retirements for reasons of age, the Vatican did not give a reason for Cardinal Burke’s reassignment.

A prominent devotee of the traditional liturgy and outspoken defender of traditional doctrine on controversial moral issues, the cardinal has appeared increasingly out of step with the current pontificate.

In December 2013, Pope Francis did not reappoint him to his position on the Congregation for Bishops, which advises the pope on episcopal appointments.

Cardinal Burke expressed frustration, in a February 2014 article in the Vatican newspaper, that many Americans thought Pope Francis intended to change Catholic teaching on certain “critical moral issues of our time,” including abortion and same-sex marriage, because of the pope’s stated belief that “it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

Insisting that the pope had “clearly affirmed the church’s moral teaching, in accord with her unbroken tradition,” Cardinal Burke blamed perceptions to the contrary on “false praise” of Pope Francis by “persons whose hearts are hardened against the truth.”

After Pope Francis invited German Cardinal Walter Kasper to address a meeting of the world’s cardinals in February, Cardinal Burke emerged as a leading opponent of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to make it easier for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion.

Cardinal Burke also warned that any efforts to streamline the marriage annulment process — the mandate of a commission the pope established in August — should not undermine the process’ rigor.

During the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family, Cardinal Burke was one of the strongest critics of a midterm report that used remarkably conciliatory language toward people with ways of life contrary to Catholic teaching, including those in same-sex unions and other non-marital relationships. The day the report was released, the cardinal told an American reporter that a statement from Pope Francis reaffirming traditional doctrine on those matters was “long overdue.”

Cardinal Burke made the news again late last month when he told a Spanish journalist that many Catholics “feel a bit of seasickness, because it seems to them that the ship of the church has lost its compass. The cause of this disorientation must be put aside. We have the constant tradition of the church, the teachings, the liturgy, morals. The catechism does not change.”

A former archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Burke has led the Apostolic Signature since June 2008. At the time of his dismissal he was the highest-ranking U.S. bishop at the Vatican. That distinction now belongs to Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, adjunct secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The new head of the Apostolic Signature is French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, till now the secretary for relations with states, the Vatican’s equivalent of a foreign minister.

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