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Catholic counselors sue Michigan over therapy restrictions for trans-identifying kids

Michigan State Capitol Building in Lansing, Michigan. / Credit: John McLenaghan/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2024 / 15:50 pm (CNA).

Catholic counselors filed a federal lawsuit on Friday against Michigan’s broad ban on so-called “conversion therapy” for minors, saying the law limits their ability to counsel children struggling with their gender identity. 

The Michigan law, HB 4616, directs that mental health professionals “shall not engage in conversion therapy with a minor.” The lawsuit, filed in U.S. district court, argues that the rule “forces counselors to ‘affirm’ children in the belief that they were born in the wrong body.”

Catholic counselor Emily McJones and several local Catholic Charities affiliates argue in the suit that the law, passed in July of last year, “harms vulnerable children.”

“This is a lawsuit about helping children who experience distress over their biological sex,” the 33-page complaint of Catholic Charities v. Whitmer argues.

“I opened Little Flower to offer those who come through my doors compassionate therapy that helps them live whole, integrated lives,” McJones, a licensed therapist and owner of the Lansing-based Little Flower Counseling, said in a July 12 press release from the religious liberty law firm Becket, which is representing the plaintiffs.

“But now Michigan officials are threatening to strip my license because I provide therapy rooted in my faith and the best available scientific evidence,” McJones said.

McJones joined the Catholic Church in 2017 and began her practice in 2020. Named for St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who is known as “the Little Flower,” her practice offers “psychotherapy from an authentically Catholic perspective,” according to her website.

Her practice is open to anyone. Her website states that she “will never violate my faith in my practice” and will “never push my faith” on clients.

HB 4616 allows only what state statute calls “acceptance, support, or understanding” from counselors discussing gender transitions with their clients, requiring that a counselor “does not seek to change an individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity.” 

Those in violation of the law could lose their license or be fined up to $250,000.

Michigan is one of 22 other states that have restrictions against so-called “conversion therapy.” A Christian marriage and family counselor’s lawsuit against a Washington state ban on “conversion therapy” reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2023, but the court declined to hear it. 

“Michigan’s attempt to gag compassionate, professional counselors is contrary to the Constitution, sound evidence, and common sense,” Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said in the group’s press release.

“The Constitution doesn’t let the government dictate what people can and can’t say — especially when the government is cutting off vulnerable children and families from counseling they desperately want to receive,” he noted.

The suit argues that HB 4616 violates due process because “it employs vague, undefined terms that invite arbitrary and selective enforcement” as well as violating rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

“Worse, HB 4616 harms vulnerable children by depriving them of the compassionate counseling they so desperately need,” the lawsuit read.

“Instead of allowing counselors to help children explore the underlying factors that may be contributing to their distress, and to help them accept and embrace their biological sex, HB 4616 forces counselors to ‘affirm’ children in the belief that they were born in the wrong body and help them undergo permanent, life-altering medical procedures that many will come to regret.”

The Catholic Church affirms biological sex as a gift from God. A recent document from the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Infinita, noted: “Any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception.”

The lawsuit requests a preliminary and permanent injunction against the enforcement of HB 4616. A hearing is expected later this year.

Appeals court refuses to reinstate Oklahoma federal grants in abortion referral dispute

null / Credit: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2024 / 15:20 pm (CNA).

A federal appeals court this week refused to reinstate federal family planning grants to Oklahoma after the state refused to provide abortion referrals in its family planning services. 

The state in November filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) after the Biden administration suspended “millions of dollars” in Title X federal family planning funding. 

Oklahoma said in the lawsuit that HHS “overreached by unlawfully suspending and terminating millions of dollars of Title X grant funding” to the state after it would “not commit to providing referrals for abortion” in its own family planning programs.

Title X is a Nixon-era federal family planning program enacted in 1970. It distributes federal grants to community clinics and health departments in order to provide contraception services and other family planning and health services. Federal law forbids Title X funding from being used to directly procure abortions. 

A U.S. district court had earlier rejected the state’s request for an injunction against HHS. In a decision on Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld the lower court’s decision, agreeing that “the combination of Title X and the HHS requirements” doesn’t violate the spending power of Congress, and that the state “acted voluntarily and knowingly when accepting HHS’ conditions” regarding the federal funding. 

Citing the lower court’s ruling, the appeals court said in part that the “act of sharing the call-in number” wouldn’t constitute “a referral for pregnant women to get abortions.” 

In a dissent to the Monday ruling, Judge Richard Federico argued that Oklahoma was entitled to the injunction due in part to the “irreparable harm” the state will suffer from the loss of about $4.5 million in Title X funds.

“The termination of the financial grant is actual, irreparable harm that will occur before the district court rules on the merits of the case, warranting relief,” Federico wrote.

In a statement on Tuesday, Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond told CNA he was “disappointed by the ruling.” 

“As the dissent rightly points out, ‘rather than complying with its statutory obligations,’ the federal government stripped millions in funding from the Oklahoma Health Department because it refused to refer women for abortions,” Drummond said. 

“Moreover, the dissent wrote, this ‘violation of’ federal law ‘reduces access to health care for those who need it most,’” the prosecutor added. 

“We will appeal the court’s decision,” he said. 

The dispute is part of a larger back-and-forth series of abortion regulations issued first by the Trump administration and then the Biden administration. 

In 2019, the Trump administration issued a rule “prohibiting referral for abortion as a method of family planning,” directing that Title X recipients were “not required to choose between participating in the program and violating their own consciences by providing abortion counseling and referral.”

In 2021 the Biden administration reversed that rule. Oklahoma’s lawsuit last year said the White House now requires that Title X recipients offer pregnant women “the opportunity to be provided information and counseling regarding” abortion.

Top Catholic app reportedly removed from app store in China

This photo taken on Jan. 15, 2024, shows a Chinese flag fluttering below a cross on a Christian church in Pingtan in China’s southeast Fujian province. / Credit: GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2024 / 14:50 pm (CNA).

The popular U.S.-based Catholic app Hallow has been removed from the Apple App Store in China for featuring “illegal” content, the app’s founder said Monday. 

Alex Jones, Hallow’s founder, posted on social media Monday afternoon that the app “just got kicked out of the App Store in China.”

“Praying for all the Christians in China,” he added.

Hallow is a prayer app that provides audio-based Catholic devotional content. Since launching in 2018, Hallow says its app has been downloaded over 14 million times “across 150-plus countries.” In February, downloads of Hallow briefly topped the app store, across all categories, for the first time.

Jones told CNA in an email Tuesday that the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC) informed him Hallow was “deemed to include content on the app that is illegal in China and so must be removed,” with no further details provided.

He said the number of users of the Catholic app in China was “well into the thousands,” though they don’t have exact numbers. China’s Catholics, according to one study, peaked at 12 million in 2005.

“We will continue to try and serve our brothers and sisters in Christ in China as best we can through our website, web application, social media content, but mostly with our prayers,” Jones said.

He declined to speculate on the timing of the CAC’s action. A major new audio series about the life of St. John Paul II, “Witness to Hope,” launched on Hallow this week and makes mention of the saint’s resistance to communism.

The communist government of China is officially atheist, though a handful of “official” religions are tolerated, including Catholicism. The Church in China is split between the government-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and an “underground” Catholic Church that is persecuted and loyal to Rome.

The Vatican in 2018 signed on to a controversial deal with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops, which China has repeatedly defied by appointing its own loyalists to episcopal positions.

The Chinese government has long exerted heavy control and surveillance over the internet and social media in the country and also pressures religious believers to conform to the ideology of the Communist Party. Among other things, Chinese law requires that religious education and sites of worship must be officially approved by and registered with the government.

This is not the first time that the CAC has used Chinese cyber law to pressure the removal of religious apps. In 2021, a digital Bible company removed its app from Apple’s app store offerings in China while Apple itself removed a Quran app from its China store, at the request of Chinese officials.

The CAC’s censorship is also not limited to religious apps: In April, the CAC ordered Apple to remove WhatsApp, Signal, and Telegram — three of the world’s most popular messaging apps, all of which offer private, encrypted messaging — from the app store, citing national security concerns.

Suspect charged with felony hate crime after beheading statue of Jesus at New York parish

null / Credit: ArtOlympic/Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2024 / 14:20 pm (CNA).

A suspect in a vandalism incident at a New York City parish has been charged with a hate crime after beheading a statue of the Christ Child in Queens. 

Queens District Attorney Melinda Katz said in a press release on her website that Jamshaid Choudhry “has been charged with criminal mischief as a hate crime and other related crimes” in connection with the smashing of the statue at Holy Family Roman Catholic Church in Fresh Meadows on June 30. 

The attack “caused the head of one of the statues, the depiction of a child Jesus, to break off,” Katz’s office said. 

Surveillance footage reportedly showed Choudhry pulling up to the parish in a yellow cab, after which he allegedly ran up to the statue, took off his shoe, and struck the statue multiple times with it, beheading the depiction of Jesus. 

The vandalism reportedly cost the church about $3,000. Choudhry himself was arrested last week. 

“We will not tolerate unprovoked attacks, especially those driven by hate,” Katz said in the statement. “Queens stands as a beacon of diversity and inclusivity, where freedom of religion and expression are celebrated as fundamental pillars of our democracy.” 

“Thanks to my Hate Crimes Bureau and the NYPD’s Hate Crime Task Force, this individual has been apprehended,” she added. 

The suspect faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted. 

The New York incident is one of numerous acts of vandalism against Catholic churches and other faith organizations in recent months and years. 

Last month the faith-based crisis pregnancy center Heartbeat of Miami settled with vandals who graffitied its property after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade in 2022. 

In February, a vandal defaced a statue of the Blessed Mother in a prayer garden on the grounds of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. 

In April, a vandal in Portland, Oregon, spray-painted a church there with an expletive and the slogan “my body my choice.” The pastor there urged his parish to pray for the vandal. 

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told EWTN News earlier this year that the various acts of vandalism, as well as other, more violent attacks on parishes, “are not random nor are they the result of a temporary lapse in judgment by perpetrators.” 

The senator criticized the Biden administration for failing to pursue and prosecute these attacks. 

“They can’t find a single person or any of these people that were responsible for these, what is a pretty concerted effort to attack Catholic churches in America,” he said.

Former Secret Service agent: Attack on Trump shows ‘It’s a very dangerous world’

Paul Eckloff, a 23-year veteran of the Secret Service who served in the Presidential Protective Division during the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, speaks with “EWTN News Nightly” anchor Tracy Sabol on July 15, 2024.  / Credit: “EWTN News Nightly”/screenshot

National Catholic Register, Jul 16, 2024 / 13:20 pm (CNA).

The American public should avoid rushing to judgments before knowing the facts of the assassination attempt on former president Donald Trump, a former Secret Service agent told “EWTN News Nightly” on Monday.

“I assure you, every vulnerability was known, and there were mitigative measures put in place,” said Paul Eckloff, a 23-year veteran of the Secret Service who served in the Presidential Protective Division during the George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. 

“But, sadly, as we saw on Saturday, no protective plan or operation is perfect,” he added. “They’re designed by men and women, and they can be defeated by them.”

Eckloff said security planning is “not an exact science, and it’s a very dangerous world.” 

He told “EWTN News Nightly” the Secret Service likely only had a few days to prepare for the July 13 Trump rally in Butler, Pennsylvania. He said agents, officers, and technicians meet with local and state law enforcement in the days leading up to events like the rally. 

“President Trump has far more security than the average former president; and as the primary candidate for the Republican Party, he has some assets that others may not — approaching the presidential level of protection,” Eckloff said. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a White House press briefing Monday that the security of Trump and President Joe Biden is one of the “most vital priorities” of the Biden administration, the Secret Service, the FBI, and partners within the federal government. 

“Both prior to and after the events of this past weekend, the Secret Service enhanced former president Trump’s protection based on the evolving nature of threats to the former president,” Mayorkas said.

Mayorkas said protective measures at the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee this week will include personnel and technology such as anti-scale fencing and screening technology. He also told reporters the FBI is leading a criminal investigation and an independent review to analyze security measures “before, during, and after” the Trump rally in Butler.

Eckloff said he himself has “more questions than the public would ask” about Saturday’s attempted assassination of Trump, but he said eyewitness testimonies can be flawed, particularly when recalling the amount of time passed, referring to the viral BBC interview of a man saying he warned a police officer of the attempted assassin Thomas Matthew Crooks on the roof. Eckloff also explained that an officer cannot leave his post and is limited to communication via radio.

“The questions need to be asked about the security of the building that the shooter scaled and about the police interactions that potentially spurred his rapid action and allowed the counter sniper to neutralize,” Eckloff said. 

The counter-sniper who shot and killed Crooks had only a “split second” to realize Crooks was a threat and shoot him, he told “EWTN News Nightly.”

“I think it’s important for people to understand the superhuman things you’re asking from humans,” he said. “If he had shot an innocent individual trying to get a view of the former president without a weapon, we’d be having a very different conversation.”

He said there “justifiably will be criticisms” regarding the security plan, but he doesn’t believe anyone should question “the dedication and the sacrifice” the men and women in the Secret Service demonstrated at the rally.

“You can ask questions, you can demand better, but to publicly eviscerate the men and women who threw their bodies, who put that vest on — not to save their own lives, but to save former president Trump — I just wish more people would recognize the heroism that we saw on Saturday afternoon,” he said.

Eckloff said former Secret Service agents like himself have a unique response to the deadly events of Saturday evening. 

“What former agents feel is something I don’t know any other American or anybody else on Earth feels,” Eckloff said. “We wish we were there. We wish it happened on our watch because we know that we can add to it, we can help reach and save the former president or president. It’s like we want to dive into the screen and use our bodies to shield the problem.”

Eckloff also said his “heart goes out” to Corey Comperatore, a rally attendee and devout Christian husband and father who was killed shielding his family, comparing his sacrificial actions to that of a Secret Service agent. 

This story was first published by the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, and has been adapted by CNA.

Guadalajara archbishop to Pope Francis on Latin Mass ban: ‘Do not allow this to happen’

Cardinal Juan Sandoval Íñiguez. / Credit: InterMirifica.net

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2024 / 12:20 pm (CNA).

A Mexican archbishop emeritus is imploring Pope Francis not to ban the Traditional Latin Mass amid rumors that the Vatican is moving to further restrict the ancient liturgy. 

In a letter to the Holy Father dated July 6, Cardinal Juan Sandoval Iñiguez, the archbishop emeritus of Guadalajara, Mexico, wrote to Francis of the “rumors that there is a definitive intention to prohibit the Latin Mass of St. Pius V.” Those rumors have circulated in recent months, though no definitive pronouncement has yet come from the Vatican. 

In his letter, Sandoval noted that “the Lord’s Supper, which he commanded us to celebrate in his memory,” has “been celebrated throughout history in various rites and languages, always preserving the essentials: commemorating the death of Christ and partaking in the table of the Bread of Eternal Life.”

“Even today, the Lord’s Supper is celebrated in various rites and languages, both within and outside the Catholic Church,” the prelate wrote. 

“It cannot be wrong what the Church has celebrated for four centuries the Mass of St. Pius V in Latin, with a rich and devout liturgy that naturally invites one to penetrate into the mystery of God,” he argued.

The archbishop noted that “several individuals and groups, both Catholic and non-Catholic, have expressed the desire for it not to be suppressed but preserved.” Earlier this month a distinguished coalition of British public figures called upon the Holy See to preserve what they describe as the “magnificent” cultural artifact of the Latin Mass.

Sandoval said the calls for the Mass’ preservation were being made “because of the richness of its liturgy and in Latin, which alongside Greek, forms the foundation of not only Western culture but also other parts.”

“Pope Francis, do not allow this to happen. You are also the guardian of the historical, cultural, and liturgical richness of the Church of Christ,” he wrote.

Ordained in 1957, Sandoval served as the archbishop of Guadalajara from 1994 to 2011. Prior to that he was coadjutor bishop of Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and briefly served as its bishop. He was made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1994.

He also served in the 2005 papal conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI as well as the 2013 enclave that elected Pope Francis.

The archbishop made headlines last October when, along with four other cardinals, he sent a set of questions to Pope Francis expressing concerns on matters of doctrine and discipline in the Catholic Church. The “dubia” were sent just before the opening of the Synod on Synodality at the Vatican.

Though the Vatican has not issued a comprehensive ban on the Latin liturgy, the Holy See has in recent years significantly restricted its use.

Pope Francis in July 2021 issued the motu proprio Traditionis Custodes that placed restrictions on Masses celebrated in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite.

The Holy Father in issuing the decree said he acted “in defense of the unity of the body of Christ,” on the grounds that there was “distorted use” of the ability for priests to say Mass according to the 1962 missal.

More recently, earlier this month, the Vatican prohibited the celebration of the Traditional Latin Mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Covadonga, a rite that customarily takes place at the conclusion of the annual Our Lady of Christendom pilgrimage in Spain.

Vatican approves ‘Our Lady of the Rock’ shrine at alleged Marian apparition site in Italy

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, presides over a press conference on Friday, May 17, 2024, on the Vatican’s new document on Marian apparitions. / Credit: Rudolf Gehrig/EWTN News

Rome Newsroom, Jul 16, 2024 / 11:24 am (CNA).

The Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith has accepted the decree of a bishop approving the spiritual activities of a shrine at the site of alleged Marian apparition “Our Lady of the Rock” in southern Italy.

It is the DDF’s fourth public pronouncement related to alleged apparitions since issuing norms for the discernment of “alleged supernatural phenomena” in May. The new regulations stated the local bishop must consult and receive final approval from the Vatican after investigating and judging alleged apparitions and connected devotions.

In a July 5 letter published Tuesday, the DDF said it had taken note of Bishop Francesco Oliva’s “positive report on the spiritual good that is taking place” at the Shrine of the Madonna dello Scoglio (“Our Lady of the Rock”) in the southern Italian diocese of Locri-Gerace and confirmed the bishop’s declaration that nothing prevents Catholics from visiting and participating in its devotions and liturgies.

The dicastery stressed that while it affirmed the bishop’s recognition of the spiritual experience at the shrine, it should be in no way construed as a judgment of the supernatural quality of the alleged apparitions of “Our Lady of the Rock.”

The letter is signed by DDF prefect Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández and was approved by Pope Francis in a July 5 audience.

The Marian shrine in Santa Domenica, a tiny village in the Italian region of Calabria, was built around a boulder, the site of Mary’s alleged appearances to 18-year-old Cosimo Fragomeni from May 11–14, 1968, as he was returning home from working in the fields.

Officially constructed in 2016, the sanctuary has come to be known locally as “the little Lourdes of Calabria” and has seen an ever-growing number of pilgrims and visitors, many of whom come seeking physical healing.

Fragomeni is still living and has recounted his alleged mystical experiences in approximately 30 letters. He receives visitors for brief personal meetings twice a week.

The DDF instructed the local bishop, who has jurisdiction over the shrine, to be clear in his decree that approval of the spiritual activity of the shrine does “not imply any judgment — either positive or negative — on the lives of the persons involved in this case” and any further messages from the seer should be made public only with his approval.

The Vatican’s doctrinal office confirmed the “nihil obstat” judgment of the diocesan bishop given that, as he informed them, “no critical or risky elements have emerged, much less problems of obvious gravity” at the alleged Marian apparition site, but “instead, there are signs of grace and spiritual conversion.”

According to the May 17 norms, a “nihil obstat” judgment means: “Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged ‘in the midst’ of a given spiritual experience, and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far.”

In its letter, the DDF quoted Oliva’s letter to the dicastery, which explained that “the fruits of Christian life in those who frequent the Rock [i.e., the shrine] are evident, such as the existence of the spirit of prayer, conversions, some vocations to the priesthood and religious life, testimonies of charity, as well as a healthy devotion and other spiritual fruits.”

“In the secularized world in which we live, in which so many spend their lives without any reference to transcendence, the pilgrims who approach the Shrine of the Rock are a powerful sign of faith,” the DDF’s letter said.

“Their presence before the Virgin, who for them becomes a clear expression of the Lord’s mercy, is a way of acknowledging their own inadequacy to carry out the labors of life and their ardent need and desire for God,” it continued. 

“In such a truly precious context of faith, a renewed proclamation of the kerygma can continue to enlighten and enrich this experience of the Spirit.”

Pennsylvania bishop on Trump assassination attempt: ‘Pray for each other’

Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh speaks with anchor Tracy Sabol on “EWTN News Nightly” on July 15, 2024, about the attempted assassination of former president Donald Trump. / Credit: “EWTN News Nightly”/screenshot

CNA Staff, Jul 16, 2024 / 10:35 am (CNA).

In response to the assassination attempt of former president Donald Trump at a rally in western Pennsylvania on Saturday, Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh on Monday called for Americans to “pray for each other.”

The violence, which resulted in the death of a 50-year-old firefighter, happened in Butler just an hour north of Pittsburgh, Zubik’s diocese. 

“I think the devil has been working overtime [to] where we have really become so divided,” Zubik told Tracy Sabol on “EWTN News Nightly” on Monday. “Not only as a country; we become divided as a Church, we become divided in our families. What’s happened as a result of that is rather than seeing the best in each other, we see the worst.”

Zubik noted that this is cause for personal examinations of conscience by Americans, noting that the event shows the effect of “inflammatory rhetoric.”  

“We really got to take the example of Jesus and look for the best in each other and look for the ways in which we can become more unified and when we can, in fact, build up our families, build up our Church, build up our country, build up the world,” he said.

When asked how Catholics should respond to the death of the shooter, a 20-year-old man, Zubik responded: “We’ve got to go to the cross of Calvary.”

“When you think about Jesus hanging on the cross there, he [says] forgive them, Father, that they don’t know what they’re doing,” Zubik explained. “Our Jesus comes to save us all.”

“The fact of it as violence, sin can never be defended,” he continued. “But on the other side of it, there is a God who takes a look at what happens there and wants us to be able to learn something from it that can help our hearts to become much more tender.”

“At the same time, we’ve got to take a look at the mercy that is universally from God and that he’s always offering us the opportunity for forgiveness for whatever wrong we’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me that we have to be able to pray for each other in that, and especially to pray for the young man who did the deed.”

The Vatican released a statement condemning the violence and expressing prayer for the victims, though it did not mention Trump by name. When asked about this, Zubik responded: “I think that the Holy See, and most especially for Francis, is always going to be addressing concerns from the perspective of how can we, universally, become better people.” 

Zubik also cited the importance of the “common good” as a consideration for Catholics who are considering the candidates running for president.

“For all of those things that will, in fact, build up the common good of who we are as a country, who we are as a Church, and especially who we are as individuals — I think that that’s something that people all over the world have to really take a look at,” he noted. 

“But it’s the role of the Church, and certainly of our Holy Father and the rest of us, to be able to move the needle, as it were, in a direction that says we’re really trying to do that, and to do that by respecting life on all of its levels and respecting every single human person,” Zubik said.

Archbishop Gänswein on Baltic appointment: Ready for ‘the front’

Archbishop Georg Gänswein was the personal secretary of the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. / Credit: Bohumil Petrík

CNA Newsroom, Jul 16, 2024 / 09:35 am (CNA).

Archbishop Georg Gänswein, former personal secretary to Pope Benedict XVI, has spoken about his new appointment as apostolic nuncio to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, describing it as “a new possibility” to carry out his apostolate “in a completely different area.”

In an interview with EWTN News on the sidelines of the “Benedict XVI Forum” in Altötting, Bavaria, the prelate said he was approaching the role “with confidence, with trust in God, but also with great joy.”

“I see the appointment as a new opportunity,” Gänswein, who will turn 68 on July 30, told EWTN. “I gladly accept it, even if the dear God now wants me to be there, which I hadn’t thought of at all.”

The archbishop acknowledged that he had never worked in a nunciature before and did not come from the so-called “diplomatic career” track. However, he noted that in his roles as private secretary and prefect of the Papal Household, he had “a lot of contact with the diplomatic world.”

Regarding potential challenges in his new post, Gänswein said: “The Baltic countries are of course very important geopolitically, also for Europe. I don’t have any concrete ideas yet where my priorities will be. That will emerge, and I’m looking forward to it.”

The Baltic states have a rich Catholic history, with Lithuania particularly notable for its strong Catholic identity. However, the region faces significant geopolitical challenges, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

‘If it’s the front, it’s the front’

Speaking to EWTN, Gänswein emphasized a spiritual approach when asked how he was preparing for the assignment: “I take it all into prayer and I’m already trying to read a little about the countries, to inquire. Everything else, I think, will become apparent.”

The archbishop acknowledged the geopolitical situation in the region, particularly its proximity to the ongoing war in Ukraine. NATO has significantly increased its presence, sending thousands of soldiers from Germany and other nations in response to Russia’s heightened threat — despite divergent views on European defense.

While admitting he had no personal experience of the situation, the German prelate said: “If you say that’s where the front is, and our loving God wants me there, then I’ll gladly go there. If it’s the front, it’s the front. In any case, it’s a place where Our Lord will also be active.”

Reflecting on Benedict’s legacy

The interview took place at the first-ever “Benedict XVI Forum” in Altötting, the famous Marian pilgrimage site in Bavaria. The event, which took place from July 10–15 and was visited by Cardinal Kurt Koch and several experts, explored the Apostles’ Creed using Joseph Ratzinger’s 1968 bestseller “Introduction to Christianity,” reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

Gänswein spoke to EWTN of his deep connection to the place, recalling Benedict XVI’s visit there as pope in 2006.

“When I arrived here yesterday, I had the impression it was only the day before yesterday,” he said. “It was also beautiful weather, but it was so full of emotions, so full of the spirit that is palpable here, the spirit of the Mother of God. It’s like flipping a switch.”

The diplomatic posting marks a new chapter for Gänswein, following a period of uncertainty after Benedict XVI’s death. In June 2023, he was ordered to leave the Vatican without a new assignment, which sparked much speculation about his future role in the Church. 

Reflecting on his years of service to Benedict XVI on the weekend, Gänswein described it as “a matter of conscience” to pass on the late pope’s legacy. 

“Because that is a great gift for Catholics, the Church, and people,” he said. “And to cultivate this gift is one of my great inner tasks, which I am happy to continue to do — and I hope — for a long time to come.”

Faith amid bombs: Priests minister to Christians in border towns of Lebanon and Israel

A group of young people from the Apostolic Movement of Jish, led by Father Sandy Habib, during prayer before the meal on July 12, 2024, at the Maronite convent in Jerusalem. The aim is “bringing ourselves closer to Jesus,” Habib explained to CNA. “We try to achieve this through spiritual activities, social activities like trips, and by announcing Jesus Christ.” / Credit: Marinella Bandini

Jerusalem, Jul 16, 2024 / 05:47 am (CNA).

On October 7, 2023, when Hamas militants attacked Israel, hostilities between Hezbollah (a Lebanese Shia Islamist political party and militant group) and Israel resumed, putting Christian communities on both sides of the Lebanon-Israel border to the test.

Kiryat Shmona and Safad in Israel, and Deir Mimas and Naqura in Lebanon are a handful of locations known for their history of fighting and violence. But they are also towns where small Christian communities live.

CNA reached out to three priests who tirelessly continue to reach these communities from both sides of the border, bringing them closeness, words of hope, and spiritual and material aid.

Father Rody Noura, 37,  a Maronite priest, drives every day from Acre, where he lives, to visit his parishioners — about 4,000 — in the Jewish towns of northern Israel. Like him, they are all Lebanese, having arrived in May 2000 after the Israeli army withdrew from Lebanon.

“It is possible to move around fairly safely, although sometimes you see missile explosions,” he told CNA. “When I leave, I say to the Lord: ‘Today, too, I am going out to do Your will. Whether I return home depends on You.’”

Father Rody Noura, on the left, with Father Giovanni Bovi, a recently ordained priest serving in the Maronite Church, outside the church in Tiberias. Noura was 13 years old when he fled from Lebanon to Israel. “I wondered: why did all this happen to me? I’m just a child. I wanted to escape from this world; I had lost trust in everyone, even myself.” Then came an encounter with the Neocatechumenal Way and the message that “God exists and loves me as I am. It was the answer I was looking for. It restored my hope.”. Courtesy of Father Rody Noura
Father Rody Noura, on the left, with Father Giovanni Bovi, a recently ordained priest serving in the Maronite Church, outside the church in Tiberias. Noura was 13 years old when he fled from Lebanon to Israel. “I wondered: why did all this happen to me? I’m just a child. I wanted to escape from this world; I had lost trust in everyone, even myself.” Then came an encounter with the Neocatechumenal Way and the message that “God exists and loves me as I am. It was the answer I was looking for. It restored my hope.”. Courtesy of Father Rody Noura

Father Sandy Habib, 45, is the Maronite parish priest of Jish, an Israeli Arab village with a population of 3,000, 60-65% of whom are Christians (Maronites and Melkites). The village is located at the foot of Mount Meron, a few kilometers from the Lebanese border.

“The belief in Jesus Christ gives me the strength to continue doing what I’m doing despite difficulties,” Habib said. “The hope that Jesus Christ gives us enables me to continue living in this place. We need peace, justice, and love, and that’s possible only through Jesus Christ.”

The celebration of Holy Thursday in Tiberias, by Maronite faithful of Lebanese origin. Father Rody Noura, a Maronite priest, visits the sick, families in difficulty, and those evacuated from high-risk areas who are now living in hotels (about 800 people), and he teaches catechism to children. “Only with Christ,” he said “even in the midst of war, there is hope; in the midst of death, there is resurrection.”. Courtesy of Father Rody Noura
The celebration of Holy Thursday in Tiberias, by Maronite faithful of Lebanese origin. Father Rody Noura, a Maronite priest, visits the sick, families in difficulty, and those evacuated from high-risk areas who are now living in hotels (about 800 people), and he teaches catechism to children. “Only with Christ,” he said “even in the midst of war, there is hope; in the midst of death, there is resurrection.”. Courtesy of Father Rody Noura

On the Lebanon side of the border, Father Toufic Bou Mehri, 55, superior of the Franciscan convent in Tyre, is the “itinerant pastor” for the Latin Rite faithful scattered in the villages of southern Lebanon. Every Sunday he travels 70 kilometers to Deir Mimas, four kilometers from the Israeli border, opposite the town of Metulla. At 11:30, he celebrates Mass for the few remaining faithful. “We have never missed a Sunday,” he said.

An Israeli missile explodes behind the Orthodox convent in Deir Mimas. Every Sunday, Father Toufic Bou Mehri travels to Deir Mimas, a little Lebanese village 4 kilometers from the Israeli border, and celebrates the Mass in the Franciscan church. "There are no bunkers in the village," he recounted. "When missiles start whistling, it’s pointless to interrupt Mass; there’s no safe place.". Courtesy of Father Toufic Bou Mehri
An Israeli missile explodes behind the Orthodox convent in Deir Mimas. Every Sunday, Father Toufic Bou Mehri travels to Deir Mimas, a little Lebanese village 4 kilometers from the Israeli border, and celebrates the Mass in the Franciscan church. "There are no bunkers in the village," he recounted. "When missiles start whistling, it’s pointless to interrupt Mass; there’s no safe place.". Courtesy of Father Toufic Bou Mehri

The situation in northern Israel “is apparently normal,” according to Noura. People work, and children go to school. But not everything is as it was before.

Many have relatives and friends on the other side of the border. Sometimes a wrong number in the phonebook can lead to accusations of collaboration with people “on the other side.” Because of this, he said, “we pray for one another, but we try to avoid direct contact.”

Saint Barbara's celebration in Safed, a Jewish city in the Upper Galilee less than 20 kilometers from the Lebanon border, occasionally targeted by missiles launched by Hezbollah. “It is possible to move around fairly safely, although sometimes you see missile explosions,” Father Rody Noura, a Maronite priest, told CNA. “When I leave, I say to the Lord: ‘Today, too, I am going out to do Your will. Whether I return home depends on You.’”. Courtesy of Father Rody Noura
Saint Barbara's celebration in Safed, a Jewish city in the Upper Galilee less than 20 kilometers from the Lebanon border, occasionally targeted by missiles launched by Hezbollah. “It is possible to move around fairly safely, although sometimes you see missile explosions,” Father Rody Noura, a Maronite priest, told CNA. “When I leave, I say to the Lord: ‘Today, too, I am going out to do Your will. Whether I return home depends on You.’”. Courtesy of Father Rody Noura

Noura visits the sick, families in difficulty, and those evacuated from high-risk areas who are now living in hotels (about 800 people), and he teaches catechism to children.

“Only with Christ,” he said “even in the midst of war, there is hope; in the midst of death, there is resurrection.”

He brings to his faithful the message of God’s love for humanity, the same love that changed his life as a teenager.

“I was 13 years old when, from one day to the next, we fled from Lebanon and came to Israel,” along with thousands of people, he told CNA. All of them were considered traitors because they belonged to the pro-Israeli militia called the South Lebanon Army, like Noura’s father, or had relations and contacts with Israelis.

“I wondered: why did all this happen to me? I’m just a child. I wanted to escape from this world; I had lost trust in everyone, even myself.” Then came an encounter with the Neocatechumenal Way, a Catholic community, and the message that “God exists and loves me as I am. It was the answer I was looking for. It restored my hope.”

For this reason, he continued, “In the face of this war, we want to choose the good, that is, Christ. Jesus said, ‘love your enemies.’ Choosing Christ is choosing love, to love everyone.”

Habib, the parish priest of Jish agrees: “The key word in Christianity is love: love God and every human being, even the enemies.” This is the guiding light for him.

A group of young people from the Apostolic Movement of Jish, an Israeli Arab village located at the foot of Mount Meron, a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. In the center is Monseigneur Moussa El-Hage, Maronite archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land. To his right is Father Sandy Habib, the Maronite parish priest of Jish. July 2024. Credit: Marinella Bandini
A group of young people from the Apostolic Movement of Jish, an Israeli Arab village located at the foot of Mount Meron, a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. In the center is Monseigneur Moussa El-Hage, Maronite archbishop of Haifa and the Holy Land. To his right is Father Sandy Habib, the Maronite parish priest of Jish. July 2024. Credit: Marinella Bandini

CNA met Habib in Jerusalem, along with a group of 30 young people from the Apostolic Movement, a group that was founded 25 years ago in the parish of Jish with the aim of “bringing ourselves closer to Jesus,” Habib explained. “We try to achieve this through spiritual activities, social activities like trips, and by announcing Jesus Christ.”

The group was organizing a summer camp for children and adolescents scheduled for the first half of August. Last year, there were about 300 participants, and the same number is expected this year, despite the current situation.

“The first months of the war,” he recounted, “we had to stop all the celebrations inside the church, which is on the second level of the parish building and move everything downstairs. We also stopped almost all activities, especially with the children. We used to hear very loud artillery and sirens from time to time. This caused some panic.”

Since mid-February, the community has returned to the church and restarted the activities in the parish. “Jish is not really targeted, even though we have to take all the precautions. Life is semi-normal… until you hear the sirens or the heavy artillery.”

Habib tries to teach the youngest children “the importance of holding on to our faith, to trust in Jesus, who is the only one who can bring real peace in our hearts and in the hearts of everyone.”

“We pray for everyone because every human being is created in the image of God,” he underlined. “God, who is love, loves every human being, and He wants us to love as He loves.”

The Sunday Mass in the Maronite church of Jish, an Israeli Arab village in northern Israel, a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. “We pray for everyone because every human being is created in the image of God,” Father Sandy Habib, the parish priest, told CNA. “God, who is love, loves every human being, and He wants us to love as He loves.”. Courtesy of Father Sandy Habib
The Sunday Mass in the Maronite church of Jish, an Israeli Arab village in northern Israel, a few kilometers from the Lebanese border. “We pray for everyone because every human being is created in the image of God,” Father Sandy Habib, the parish priest, told CNA. “God, who is love, loves every human being, and He wants us to love as He loves.”. Courtesy of Father Sandy Habib

Father Mehri covers the last kilometers separating him from Deir Mimas as quickly as possible. Israeli drones could mistake him for a Hezbollah militia member and strike him. For this reason, he never stays beyond 3 p.m.; it’s safer to return in daylight.

Of the 40 parish families who once lived in the village, only 18 remain. Some returned after the first few months because they couldn’t afford living expenses. “Near Beirut, rent costs $300 per month, but these people earn $150 at best. They tell me, ‘We prefer to die with dignity at home than to die of hunger elsewhere.’”

Every Sunday, Mehri brings food parcels and fresh vegetables thanks to the support of the Apostolic Vicariate of Beirut and of the association Pro Terra Sancta, affiliated with the Custody of the Holy Land.

“Deir Mimas is famous for its olive oil; people here live off agriculture but now it’s not safe to go out to work in the fields.” Additionally, “sometimes Hezbollah militants use the fields to launch missiles.”

The Franciscan friar Father Toufic Bou Mehri, while bringing food parcels to the families of Deir Mimas, a little Lebanese village 4  kilometers from the Israeli border. The groceries are purchased with the support of the Apostolic Vicariate of Beirut and of the association Pro Terra Sancta, affiliated with the Custody of the Holy Land. Courtesy of Father Toufic Bou Mehri
The Franciscan friar Father Toufic Bou Mehri, while bringing food parcels to the families of Deir Mimas, a little Lebanese village 4 kilometers from the Israeli border. The groceries are purchased with the support of the Apostolic Vicariate of Beirut and of the association Pro Terra Sancta, affiliated with the Custody of the Holy Land. Courtesy of Father Toufic Bou Mehri

Waiting for him every Sunday is a parishioner known as Mrs. Lena, who has always taken care of the church. “Every day she lights a candle in front of the statue of Our Lady and prays for peace. I provide the candles, and she ensures the prayers.”

There are no bunkers in the village. When missiles start whistling, it’s pointless to interrupt Mass; there’s no safe place.

In March, “four missiles fell in our field, just outside the village” Mehri recounted. “One even hit the cemetery: the wall collapsed, and some graves were uncovered. For ten days, I couldn’t approach because Israeli drones were flying over, searching for Hezbollah fighters.”

But even this doesn’t stop him.

“People call me ‘father.’ To live as a parish priest, I can’t lose this bond of fatherhood. They are my children. I can’t leave them without Mass and sacraments; I can’t leave them alone.”