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Christmas Eve marks 200th anniversary of beloved carol 'Silent Night'

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy

By Richard Szczepanowski

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Exactly 200 years ago this Christmas Eve -- Dec. 24, 1818 -- in a little church in what is now Austria, the world heard for the first time a poem set to music that eventually would be hailed as one of the most popular and beloved Christmas carols of all time.

"Silent Night" was sung for the first time that Christmas Eve at a midnight Mass at St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, a village in the Austrian Empire. The lyrics were written by a young Catholic priest, Father Joseph Mohr, and the music was composed by Francis Xavier Gruber, an organist and school master.

There is a popular legend that "Silent Night" was composed because the organ at Father Mohr's parish church, St. Nicholas, was broken.

According to the story, the priest wrote the lyrics to "Silent Night" -- "Stille Nacht" in the original German -- and asked Gruber to compose the tune for guitar so that there would be music at the midnight Mass.

This was all supposed to have transpired during the day of Christmas Eve of 1818, just hours before the carol was to be performed for the first time.

The truth is a little less dramatic.

Father Mohr wrote the poem "Stille Nacht" in 1816 in the Austrian town of Mariapfarr, near Salzburg. Two years later, while serving at St. Nicholas Parish in Oberndorf, the priest asked Gruber to compose a melody for the words. It is not known why Father Mohr wanted to set his poem to music. Gruber composed the music and "Silent Night" did indeed premiere at the Christmas Eve Mass.

The fact that the song was performed in German at the Mass would not have been uncommon or unusual in the Austrian Empire at that time, according to Sara Pecknold, professor of practice in the history of sacred music at The Catholic University of America in Washington.

"The vernacular (the language of a particular country or region) was being used in the liturgy. Even at a sung high Latin Mass, it would have been common to use German (in the Austrian Empire) in the songs," she said.

This, she said, was partially due to the influence of Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor who died less than 30 years before "Silent Night" was composed, and who defied the papacy and simplified the Mass and decreed other liturgical reforms in his empire.

"He certainly limited the splendor of the Latin Mass with an austere and almost Calvinistic approach to worship," Pecknold told the catholic Standard, newspaper of the Washington Archdiocese. "So it certainly would have been proper to have a hymn sung in German accompanied by a guitar."

The carol eventually spread its way from the small village to other parts of the Austrian Empire and eventually to the rest of the world. The attraction to the carol comes from "it's blend of the particular and the universal," Pecknold noted.

Father Mohr's poem, "Stille Nacht," was written "in the wake of tumultuous activity," Pecknold said. "The Napoleonic Wars were still fresh in everyone's mind, so to write a poem about stillness and peace certainly makes sense. And it speaks about the universal peace that Christ brings to all people."

The carol's English version begins with the words:
"Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
'Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace"

The tune composed by Gruber "is interesting because it is not very sophisticated, but composed in a very folksy style. It is basically a simple tune with a folksy, pastoral setting and an undulating melodic swing. It is not too difficult to sing," Pecknold said.

The carol's fame -- and popularity -- in the United States is due in a large part to the Rainer Family Singers, a popular early 19th-century group of traveling singers from Austria who performed the song as part of their repertoire. It is believed the group brought the song to this country during their 1839 tour here.

"Stille Nacht" was translated into the English "Silent Night" by an Episcopal priest, the Rev. John Freeman Young.

"The English translation could be a little better," Pecknold conceded. The original "Stille Nacht" has six verses. The English translation only has three -- the first, second and sixth verses of the original.

According to the Stille Nacht Association, an Austrian-based organization dedicated "to make the song, its origin and its message resonate in the hearts and minds of locals and visitors from all over the world, "the carol is universally beloved.

"By the turn of the (20th) century 'Silent Night' was being sung on all continents, brought to the far reaches of the globe by Catholic and Protestant missionaries. Today we are aware of translations into more than 300 languages and dialects," the organization notes on its website.

The carol is believed to have caused a somewhat miraculous and well-documented Christmas truce during World War I.

On Christmas Eve 1914, British and French troops were encamped in trenches in a faceoff against German troops in Ypres in Flanders, Belgium. The two sides began singing Christmas carols to each other, and "Silent Night" was the only song all the combatants knew.

Singing the song together broke the ice and led to a temporary cease-fire with soldiers from both sides meeting in the middle "No Man's Land" to trade tobacco and candy, play soccer and sing carols.

As it marks its 200th anniversary, "Silent Night" remains as popular as ever. Bing Crosby's 1935 recording of the carol is the third biggest-selling single record in history; his 1942 recording of "White Christmas" holds the No. 1 spot.

A Time magazine survey found the song to be the most recorded Christmas carol, with "Joy to the World" a distant second. In 2011, the UNESCO declared "Silent Night" an honored part of "our intangible cultural heritage."

A 2016 worldwide survey of choral directors found "Silent Night" to be one of the 25 greatest Christmas carols of all time.

"We sing songs like 'Silent Night' because there is something about Christ's infancy that takes us deeper into the mystery of the Incarnation," Pecknold said. "We sing because there is something about the human voice in song that expresses something very intimate about ourselves and our joy."

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Szczepanowski is managing editor of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington.


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Ask for grace to dream and to be silent like St. Joseph, pope suggests

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While St. Joseph was a practical, down-to-earth man, he had enough faith to be open to God speaking through dreams, Pope Francis said at morning Mass.

"Joseph had his feet on the ground. But he was open-minded," the pope said Dec. 18 during his homily at Mass in the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

On a cushion at the base of the altar were four large Christmas ornaments made for the pope by Slovakian children who have disabilities.

"They made them with their own hands," the pope said at the beginning of Mass. "I thought the Lord Jesus would like having them here."

The day's Gospel reading (Mt 1:18-25) recounted how Joseph, being a righteous man, wanted to quietly break off his relationship with Mary when he found out she was pregnant, but was told in a dream that the child was conceived through the Holy Spirit and he should marry Mary.

The Gospels recount Mary saying yes to God, the pope noted, but with Joseph, the story simply says that "he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him."

While many dreams are just the dreamer's subconscious speaking, the pope said, other dreams can be "a privileged place to seek after truth because there we cannot defend ourselves against the truth. They come, and God speaks through dreams."

"Joseph was a man of dreams, but not a dreamer," he told the small congregation at the Mass. "He wasn't abstract" and did not have "his head in the clouds."

Pope Francis told people at the Mass to ask St. Joseph to help them obtain "the grace to know how to dream by always seeking God's will in dreams and also the grace to accompany others in silence without chatter."

Noting how the Gospels do not record anything St. Joseph ever said, Pope Francis said Joseph helped Jesus grow and develop. "He looked for a place for the child to be born. He cared for him, helped him grow and taught him a skill ... in silence."

St. Joseph never acted like Jesus was "his," the pope said. "He silently let him grow. He let him grow: This idea could help us immensely, we who by nature always want to stick our noses in everything, especially in the lives of others."

Sometimes, he said, parents see their children do something they wish they hadn't done, but they hold their tongues and wait for the right moment to speak.

"They don't yell right away. No, they wait for an opportunity to say something that will lead to growth," he said.

God is like that, too, he said. He is patient and allows his children to learn.


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At Christmas, Peruvians try to make Venezuelan migrants feel at home

IMAGE: CNS photo/Oscar Durand

By Oscar Durand

LIMA, Peru (CNS) -- Elide Pena, 55, grins when she talks about her favorite Christmas memory: the time when she fell under Santa's sleigh attempting to grab a toy for one of her grandchildren during a Christmas party in her native Venezuela.

For Pena, this year's celebrations will be different. She is in Peru, looking for work far from her family. And instead of spending Christmas at home, she is staying at the Scalabrini welcome center, a home run by the Scalabrinians to help respond to the wave of Venezuelans arriving in Peru.

The shelter opened its doors Aug. 6 and has room for 80 people, who can stay for up to seven days. People in particularly vulnerable situations may stay longer. Most of its residents are Venezuelans, though there are also migrants from other countries.

With more than half a million Venezuelan migrants and refugees, Peru is the second-largest host country after Colombia. Hyperinflation, power outages, political instability, violence and shortages of food and medicine have driven about 3 million people out of Venezuela.

"Before, in Venezuela, I didn't live in poverty and didn't have big needs. I could go out and enjoy myself. I lived a normal middle-class life," said Pena, who is from Margarita Island.

Three years ago, in her job as a nurse at a private psychiatric hospital, Pena started witnessing the shortage of medicines. The situation continued to worsen until last April, when the hospital closed. Without a job, and with her savings quickly dwindling due to hyperinflation, she decided to migrate.

After a monthlong journey, mostly on foot, Pena made it to Peru in late November. Along the way she slept on the street, suffered dehydration, and her feet developed blisters several times.

Her first days in Lima were challenging.

"Those first days were difficult. I couldn't sleep at night because I felt disoriented," Pena said.

"We leave our country with an idea, with expectations. But when we arrive the reality is very different. That causes a strong emotional impact, especially in the first days" said Jose Pineda, the shelter's social worker, who is also from Venezuela.

"The home is prepared for this. We want to let (the migrants) know that there is a helping hand, and we want to show them what the first steps they have to take are. That is why this home is important," he said.

During this holiday season, the Scalabrinians are also organizing activities to lift the residents' spirits.

"This is an emotionally loaded month not only for Venezuelans but for all migrants -- being without their families. Many are sad, because they cannot find a job and cannot send money to their relatives. We planned these activities to help them unite and feel at home," Pineda says.

One such effort Dec. 16 involved a group of 45 young people from Scalabrinian-run Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish. The young people came to the shelter to lead a daylong Christmas celebration. Other scheduled activities include a group visit to the zoo and a "chocolatada," a hot chocolate party traditional during during the holiday season in Peru.

A special Christmas dinner menu will include Pan de Jamon -- Venezuelan ham bread -- and hallacas -- a Venezuelan version of tamales. The dishes will be prepared by the residents themselves, just as they used to do back home.

The Scalabrinian shelter is just one of the many projects connected to the church to support migrants and refugees from Venezuela in Peru. Some of the other initiatives are the United for Hope shelter run by the Comboni Missionaries, a Salesian shelter for youth and a comprehensive project of assistance and protection provided by the Jesuits. Countless parishes across the country also run local projects.

"My biggest hope is to give them a sense of community, so they can feel as if they are among family, as if they are in a little piece of Venezuela," said Angel Risco, a Comboni lay missionary who is in charge of the United for Hope shelter.

"We want them to know that we are with them," Risco added.

At the Scalabrinian shelter, Pena told CNS: "I feel loneliness and also sadness at being away from home. But I am thankful for the people who are here with me. They have become my family.

"I continue praying to God, and I know that the timing of God is perfect. I have faith that my country will recover and that better times will come," she added.


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Scapegoating migrants in political speeches is unacceptable, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mike Blake, Reuters

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In today's climate of mistrust, rejection and nationalism, the world urgently needs peacemakers and politicians who protect and lovingly serve others, Pope Francis said in his annual message for the World Day of Peace Jan. 1.

"Terror exerted over those who are most vulnerable contributes to the exile of entire populations who seek a place of peace," he said, and "political addresses that tend to blame every evil on migrants and to deprive the poor of hope are unacceptable."

Instead, political life can and should be "an outstanding form of charity" when it is exercised with a "basic respect for the life, freedom and dignity of persons," the pope said.

Holding political office and having political responsibility "constantly challenge those called to the service of their country to make every effort to protect those who live there and to create the conditions for a worthy and just future," he said.

"One thing is certain: good politics is at the service of peace," Pope Francis wrote. "It respects and promotes fundamental human rights, which are at the same time mutual obligations, enabling a bond of trust and gratitude to be forged between present and future generations."

The pope's message, which focused on "good politics at the service of peace," was released Dec. 18 at a Vatican news conference led by Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.

Peace is a gift freely offered by God to all people, who are then called upon to be open to peace and to cooperate, making peace real in one's home, family, community and country, the cardinal said.

The pope's message, which the Vatican sends to heads of state around the world, invited politicians in particular to manage and administer resources for the well-being of "all dwellers in the house," Cardinal Turkson said.

Pope Francis' wish and prayer for peace in 2019, he said, "is that politics -- this oversight, through policies and laws, of resources of domestic, national and global households -- may bring peace to all the citizens of the households, especially its youth, who may not be robbed of their hope in the future, because politics is so badly done that it deprives them of peace."

In his message, Pope Francis said politics is the essential path for building up a "human community and institutions, but when political life is not seen as a form of service to society as a whole, it can become a means of oppression, marginalization and even destruction."

"The thirst for power at any price leads to abuses and injustice," he said, highlighting the harm caused by "political vices."

"Whether due to personal incompetence or to flaws in the system and its institutions," the pope wrote, political vices "detract from the credibility of political life overall, as well as the authority, decisions and actions of those engaged in it."

"These vices, which undermine the ideal of an authentic democracy, bring disgrace to public life and threaten social harmony," he said.

Such vices include "xenophobia, racism, lack of concern for the natural environment, the plundering of natural resources for the sake of quick profit and contempt for those forced into exile," he said. They also include many forms of corruption: "the misappropriation of public resources, the exploitation of individuals, the denial of rights, the flouting of community rules, dishonest gain, the justification of power by force or the arbitrary appeal" to national interests and the "refusal to relinquish power."

War and "the strategy of fear" are also contrary to politics at the service of peace, he said.

"To threaten others is to lower them to the status of objects and to deny their dignity," which is why any "escalation of intimidation and the uncontrolled proliferation of arms is contrary to morality and the search for true peace."

Politicians and all citizens, he said, need to "reaffirm that peace is based on respect for each person, whatever his or her background, on respect for the law and the common good, on respect for the environment entrusted to our care and for the richness of the moral tradition inherited from past generations."

The pope praised all those who work to protect and defend the rights and dignity of children living in areas of conflict, saying, "one out of every six children in our world is affected by the violence of war or its effects."

The mood in many countries, he said, is marked by "mistrust rooted in the fear of others or of strangers, or anxiety about one's personal security."

"Sadly," he said, "it is also seen at the political level, in attitudes of rejection or forms of nationalism that call into question the fraternity of which our globalized world has such great need."

"Today more than ever, our societies need 'artisans of peace' who can be messengers and authentic witnesses of God the father, who wills the good and the happiness of the human family."

Everyone, including young people, is called to cooperate and contribute to building a "common home" in one's own life, community, nation and world, he said.

"Authentic political life, grounded in law and in frank and fair relations between individuals, experiences renewal whenever we are convinced that every woman, man and generation brings the promise of new relational, intellectual, cultural and spiritual energies," he said.

"Every election and re-election, and every stage of public life, is an opportunity to return to the original points of reference that inspire justice and law," he said.

Good politics, he added, "respects and promotes fundamental human rights, which are at the same time mutual obligations, enabling a bond of trust and gratitude to be forged between present and future generations."

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Editors: The text of the pope's message in English can be found online at:

The text of the pope's message in Spanish can be found online at:


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After 25 years, Alaska priest still loves his Russian Far East mission

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- It has been 25 years and counting, but Father Michael Shields doesn't have any plans to leave the mission of the Archdiocese of Anchorage, Alaska, in Magadan, Russia, at least any time soon.

Father Shields, 69, loves his ministry in the Russian Far East city of 100,000. Magadan and Anchorage are sister cities. The mission came into being in 1989 at the initiative of then-Anchorage Bishop Francis Hurley as the former Soviet Union was in its "glasnost" and "perestroika" era under Mikhail Gorbachev.

There are only about 250 registered members of the mission -- Russia is still a predominantly Orthodox country -- and perhaps 50 to 80 of them come to Mass on a given Sunday. But "there's not a heart or a soul that I don't know deeply" among his congregants, Father Shields told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 14 interview in Washington.

Father Shields has been in the United States since late fall for knee replacement surgery and to visit donors and benefactors before his return Jan. 17. The Anchorage Archdiocese receives a grant to help fund the Magadan mission from the U.S. bishops' annual collection for the Church in Central and Eastern Europe.

The mission is about as far east as Russia can get. Russia, Father Shields added, is "not West and not East. It's both." In Magadan, he added, one can go to a drugstore on one side of the street, and pick up acupuncture needles in a shop on the other side.

With the closest Roman Catholic priest 800 miles away, it's a different kind of loneliness that sets in. But the members of the mission, Father Shields said, "are my family. That's just how I look at it."

When he's away, as he has been, Polish and Slovak priests ministering in Russia will travel to Magadan to substitute for him. Magadan was created by the former Soviet Union to be a prison-camp town, Father Shields noted, and those priests often have a relative who lived -- or died -- in the camps.

Post-Soviet Magadan's economy is based mostly in gold and coal mining. He said it also attracts professors and artists -- the same people once herded into the bygone camps. Now, though, "they get paid some sort of bonus" for working in such a remote location "and they can retire early."

When asked, Father Shields said his ability to speak Russian is "a daily humiliation for me." He celebrates Mass and preaches in Russian, "but I didn't learn until I was 42," he told CNS. Yet after a generation in Russia, some English words don't come that easily, either.

His most telling dark night of the soul, which made him question his ministry, came in 2003, when workers attached a new roof for the church "upside-down," he said. "It would rain inside the church" on cold days, of which there are plenty in Siberia, when -- and he was searching for the word "frost" -- had formed and then melt, the water running down the sides of the church walls.

"I needed to be alone," Father Shields recalled about the fiasco. "So I went to Poland for a retreat. I didn't want to talk to anyone. There were 150 blind children there. The nuns at the retreat said, 'You have to meet these children.' Being touched by 150 children later, I was healed. I went back to Magadan, and I put the roof back on myself. Forget the Russian construction company!"

Father Shields has been aided in his ministry for the past six years by a small group of students from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The first group had sent inquiries about mission work to places in western Russia without a response. Then they emailed him, and he was grateful for the help. The group, which usually numbers in single digits, spends the summer -- the temperature doesn't break 80 in Magadan -- helping out at the mission. The Magadan kids "love to practice their English" with the Steubenville students, a couple of whom tend to stay year-round to study Russian.

Russian millennials "are like millennials everywhere. They want to make a good life for themselves," and have their doubts about faith's place in their life, Father Shields said, and he counsels them on the joys of belief in God.

What he said is "hurtful," though, is the differing observances of Christmas and Easter on the Catholic and Orthodox calendars. The Orthodox Christmas, often called the Feast of Theophany -- when Jesus in human form was made known to others -- is celebrated Jan. 6, the Catholic feast of the Epiphany. And the Orthodox Easter is almost always later than the Catholic Easter.

"If I can get Pope Francis to listen to me," Father Shields said, he would split the difference. Christmas would be celebrated by all on Dec. 25, thus lessening the influence of Russia's New Year celebrations, while "we would surrender our Easter" and observe the Orthodox date.


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True Christmas celebrates Jesus, who is tender, humble, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Giuseppe Lami, EPA

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- With Christmas just over a week away, visitors came to St. Peter's Square with their Baby Jesus figurines for a traditional blessing by the pope.

Many children came with small figurines for their family Nativity scene, others held delicate sculptures, and one group set a giant statue of the Baby Jesus on top of stacks of hay bales. "All the joy in a crib," said the banner in front of the display.

Blessing the statues after reciting the Angelus prayer Dec. 16, Pope Francis told the little ones, "Dear children, may you feel wonder when you gather in your homes in prayer before the Nativity, gazing at Baby Jesus."

To see God is to feel amazement, "wonder at the great mystery of God made man. And the Holy Spirit will put humility, tenderness and the goodness of Jesus in your hearts," he said.

"Jesus is good, Jesus is tender, Jesus is humble. This is the real Christmas!" he said.

Before praying the Angelus on what is known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday, the pope explained why the church is invited to rejoice.

Jesus, the Emmanuel, is "God with us," and his presence is the source of joy, Pope Francis said. He came not to punish but to forgive and this leads people to feel joyful and full of praise.

God wants to redeem and save those whom he loves, the pope said, underlining that God's love is "incessant" and tender like a father's love for his child.

Just as Mary was called to welcome and bring the Christ child into the world, people today are also called to welcome the Gospel and so that it can "become flesh" and come into the world in people's actual lives.

People of faith should know they need not be anxious or feel despair, but need to "present to God our requests, our needs, our concerns with prayers and supplications."

"The awareness that when in difficulty we can always turn to the Lord, and that he never rejects our invocations, is a great reason for joy," he said.

There are no worries or fears that can ever "take away from us the serenity that comes from knowing that God always lovingly guides our lives," the pope said. "Even in the midst of problems and suffering, this certainty nourishes hope and courage."

After reciting the prayer, the pope also highlighted the adoption Dec. 10 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. He expressed his hope that the agreement would facilitate "responsibility, solidarity and compassion toward those who, for various reasons, have left their country."


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Pope celebrates his birthday with clients of Vatican pediatric clinic

IMAGE: CNS photo/Giuseppe Lami, EPA

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- If the Holy Family lived in Rome and the baby Jesus had a cold or flu, Mary and Joseph certainly would bring him to the Vatican pediatric clinic for help, Pope Francis said.

The Vatican's St. Martha Dispensary was founded in 1922 and, staffed by volunteers, it provides medical care and basic necessities to any child in need; most of the clients are immigrants.

Dozens of children, their parents and the clinic volunteers anticipated Pope Francis' 82nd birthday, singing for him and giving him a large cake Dec. 16. His birthday was the next day.

"I wish you all a merry Christmas, a good holy Christmas, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do. Really," the pope said. "And, I also hope that no one gets indigestion from a cake that big. Thank you!"

In brief comments to the women religious who run the clinic and to the doctors and others who volunteer there, Pope Francis said, "Working with children isn't easy, but they teach us much."

"They taught me something: to understand the reality of life, you must lower yourself, like you bend down to kiss a child. They teach us this," he said. "The proud and haughty cannot understand life because they are not capable of lowering themselves."

Everyone who works at the clinic gives children something, the pope said. "But they give us this proclamation, this teaching: bow down, be humble and you will learn to understand life and understand people."


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Update: Itinerant papal preacher: Capuchin will lead U.S. bishops' retreat

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- For more than 38 years, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa has preached to the pope and top officials of the Roman Curia. In early January, he will lead the weeklong retreat of the U.S. bishops.

As they continue to study and discuss ways to respond to the clerical sexual abuse crisis, the bishops will gather for the retreat Jan. 2-8 at Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.

Pope Francis suggested the bishops hold the retreat and offered the services of the 84-year-old Father Cantalamessa, who has served as preacher of the papal household since 1980.

In an email Dec. 6, the Capuchin declined to be interviewed about the retreat, saying, "At this delicate moment in the life of the U.S. church, I don't believe it would be opportune for me to give interviews."

The theme of the U.S. bishops' retreat will be "the mission of the apostles and of their successors" and will draw from Mark 3:14, which says Jesus "appointed 12 -- whom he also named apostles -- that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach."

In a follow-up email Dec. 15, Father Cantalamessa said, "I will not talk about pedophilia and will not give advice about eventual solutions; that is not my task and I would not have the competence to do so."

"The Holy Father asked for my availability to lead a series of spiritual exercises for the episcopal conference so that the bishops, far from their daily commitments, in a climate of prayer and silence and in a personal encounter with the Lord, can receive the strength and light of the Holy Spirit to find the right solutions for the problems that afflict the U.S. church today," Father Cantalamessa wrote.

Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office, told Catholic News Service, "You can see why the pope asked the bishops to make the retreat together in what he told the bishops of Chile: without faith and without prayer, fraternity is impossible."

"At a moment like this, the bishops need to be united in prayer, and Catholics in the U.S. should see them at prayer," Burke said Dec. 13. "A retreat is always a time for conversion, and perhaps there's been no time in the U.S. with more need for conversion than now."

The job of "preacher of the papal household" is not a fulltime position; each year it requires the priest to give an average of eight meditations -- one each on most Fridays of Advent and Lent -- and the homily during the pope's Good Friday celebration of the Lord's Passion.

The title, and the ministry, has a very long history. Superiors of different religious orders took turns preaching to the pontiff and his aides during Advent and Lent until the mid-1500s, when Pope Paul IV appointed the first preacher of the papal household; his successors followed suit, always choosing a religious-order priest for the job. Pope Benedict XIV decided in 1743 to be more specific, decreeing that the preacher of the papal household always be a Capuchin friar.

St. John Paul II asked Father Cantalamessa to take the job in 1980; since then, the Capuchin has given more than 300 spiritual talks and homilies to the popes and their closest aides in the Roman Curia.

When he is not preaching to the pope, Father Cantalamessa leads retreats around the world, writes books and articles and works with charismatic Catholics; in late October, he was named ecclesial adviser of "Charis," the new international coordinating body for the Catholic charismatic renewal.

In a 2015 interview with CNS, he said the first time he climbed the steps to the lectern in St. Peter's Basilica to preach to the pope on Good Friday, "It felt like I was climbing Mount Everest."

But, he told TV2000, the Italian bishops' television station, "this post of preacher of the papal household says more about the pope than the preacher. He has the humility to set aside all his important tasks on the Fridays of Advent and Lent to come listen to the preaching of a simple priest."

The three popes he has preached to have given him the freedom to choose the topics for his meditations, he told CNS in 2015. "I try to understand, including with the help of prayer, what are the problems, needs or even graces the church is living at the moment and to make my little contribution with a spiritual reflection."

"Putting the word of God into practice must characterize all preaching," he said. "Pope Francis gives us a stupendous example of that with his morning homilies."

While focused on challenging and strengthening the faith of those he is preaching to, Father Cantalamessa's homilies have touched on religious persecution, Christian unity, signs of hatred and prejudice in society, violence against women, war and peace, the defense of human life and the abuse crisis.

His homily in St. Peter's Basilica on Good Friday in 2010 caused controversy. At the service, presided over by Pope Benedict XVI, the Capuchin focused on how Jesus broke the cycle of violence and victimizing others by taking on the world's sins and offering himself as a victim.

He had noted that in 2010 the Christian Holy Week and the Jewish Passover coincided, and he told the congregation the Jews "know from experience what it means to be victims of collective violence," and they recognize when other groups are being attacked simply because of who they are.

He then read a portion of a letter he said he received from a Jewish friend, who wrote that he was following "with disgust" attacks against the church and the pope, including because of the abuse scandal. The repetition of stereotypes and using the wrongdoings of some individuals as an excuse to paint a whole group with collective guilt reminded the Jewish author of "the most shameful aspects of anti-Semitism," the letter said.

Father Cantalamessa later said he was sincerely sorry if he offended any members of the Jewish community or any victims of sexual abuse.

The Capuchin also has preached on the need for the Catholic Church to be honest and transparent about the abuse crisis and to repent for it.

In December 2009, just a few hours before Pope Benedict XVI met with Irish bishops to discuss the clerical sex abuse crisis, Father Cantalamessa gave one of his Advent meditations. He told the pope and other Vatican officials that, as a matter of justice, the church must publicly admit the weakness of some of its priests.

However, he had said, acknowledging weakness is not enough to "launch a renewal of priestly ministry." For that, he said, the prayers of priests themselves and all the faithful are needed as is a renewed commitment by all priests to devoting themselves totally to serving God and their brothers and sisters.

And, in Advent 2006, leading a meditation on the passage from the beatitudes that says, "Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted," Father Cantalamessa said the church's tears of shame for the abuse crisis must be turned into tears of repentance.

Rather than mourning for the damage done to the church's reputation, he said, the church must weep "for the offense given to the body of Christ and the scandal given to the smallest of its members."

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Faith advocates see victories in new farm bill

IMAGE: CNS photo/Joshua Lott, Reuters

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The farm bill that passed both houses of Congress by wide margins doesn't have money in it to protect endangered species, but it did preserve one that had been on the threatened list: bipartisanship.

"We were so excited that the Senate acted like grown-ups," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of Network, a Catholic social justice lobby.

"They actually did governance, and they had hearings, and Sen. (Pat) Roberts (a Republican) from Kansas: I rarely agree with him on anything, so this was an amazing project he led, focused on the needs of the people involved," Sister Campbell said Dec. 13. "It was far beyond partisanship in actually trying to make government work."

Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life, was happy Congress acted relatively swiftly. This was the first time a farm bill passed without needing an extension of the expiring version since 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president.

Not all farmers will reap benefits from the farm bill. "We've got lots of folks hurting in rural communities," Ennis told CNS Dec. 14, "but you can't put everything in one bill. You just can't."

Sister Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, gave Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, credit for "listening to many of the agricultural workers in Kansas who use SNAP (the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in the off-season."

Farmers who hire the farmworkers, she said, "depend on their workers being able to eat," and Roberts saw this "through the eyes of the farmworkers and the farmers."

She added Roberts was "helped by the changing politics in Kansas, which has moved significantly away from the hyperpartisan, punitive approach. ... I think it was a combination of his experience, the experience of his people, and the November election."

Sister Campbell also lauded Roberts' Democratic counterpart on the committee, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan: "She has worked hard to put together a very collaborative relationship with him, so together, they could create a bill they could be proud of."

The Senate passed the farm bill in a 87-13 vote Dec. 11. The House passed it 369-47 Dec. 12. The bill was awaiting the signature of President Donald Trump.

One point of contention between the original House and Senate versions was a provision in the House bill that would have imposed stricter work requirements for SNAP eligibility, with stretches of SNAP ineligibility growing longer each time a recipient failed to report their work, or looking for work, in a timely manner. The House ultimately removed that from its version of the bill.

"We actually got most of the stuff that we wanted," Sister Campbell told CNS in a telephone interview. While she said she sees farm subsidies as "a little excessive," the final bill "maintained pretty much the existing protections for farm runoff and the fertilizers used and that sort of thing. So I don't have complaints on that side. Certainly, after what we were facing in the House, I'm certainly not complaining about the nutritional title.

"It's a rare day for me to not complain about something."

"They decided we can't keep doing that to our farmers," Ennis said of the extensions lawmakers passed in all the previous farm bills over close to the last 30 years.

"It helps, too, that the (Republican-led) House felt under pressure due to the change in leadership (in January)," he told CNS. "They have the control now, but in the future, they would be losing control. So they made some concessions, but passed something they can live with."

Having a farm bill in place, he added, gives farmers "stability for planning for next year."

Dairy farmers, while they will see gradual opening of Canadian markets as sources for their goods under this bill, would be one focus of a future bill should one be submitted, Ennis said.

"There are a lot of dairy farmers hurting right now because of low prices," he added. "It's just very difficult to find markets that will pay a reasonable price."

Ennis said the future of family farms, with a focus on dairy farmers, will be the main topic in a future issue of Catholic Rural Life's quarterly magazine.

In a Dec. 12 statement, the Rev. David Beckmann, a Lutheran minister who is president of the Christian citizen anti-hunger lobby Bread for the World, praised the bill for its inclusion of added funding for employment and training pilot projects -- including funding prioritizing specific populations such as older Americans, former prison inmates, people with disabilities and families facing multigenerational poverty.

It also makes and funds a new program allowing health care providers to give prescriptions for low-income people to buy fresh fruits and vegetables.

The farm bill eliminates a requirement in the federal Food for Peace program to sell U.S. food commodities overseas to pay for life-saving food and nutrition programs; the complicated requirement had been cutting about $70 million from food aid each year. The legislation also gives the McGovern-Dole Food for Education program more flexibility to purchase from local farmers and markets, which will improve the nutritional quality of the food for preschool and school feeding programs in foreign countries.

The farm bill, the Rev. Beckmann said, "will be an important lifeline for millions of families experiencing hunger in both the United States and around the world."

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Catechism revision adds impetus in death penalty abolition fight

IMAGE: CNS photo/Lisa Johnston, St. Louis Review

By Mark Pattison

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Changes in law and public opinion have had their role to play in the quest to end capital punishment in the United States, but Catholic teaching also has played a part, according to Robert Dunham, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.

"Pope Francis went there last year, when Pope Francis says the question is not is there a humane way of carrying out executions. There is not a humane way of carrying out executions, he said," Dunham told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 13 telephone interview. "At the same time, Pope Francis was stressing what he called inadmissibility because it is inherently in conflict with human dignity."

The revision to section 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which took effect Aug. 2, calls capital punishment "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person," and commits the church to work "with determination" for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.

It was not the first time the catechism had been revised in conjunction with capital punishment.

The 1992 catechism originally said: "The traditional teaching of the church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty." At the same time, it said "bloodless means" that could protect human life should be used when possible.

However, following publication of St. John Paul II's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life"), section 2267 was revised in 1997 to say that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

"The revisions to the catechism are very significant for abolitionists. And they're significant both symbolically and in a practical manner. Symbolically, Pope Francis has become a moral beacon on this issue, even more so than John Paul," Dunham said.

"I was talking with Cardinal (Blase J.) Cupich (of Chicago); we did a podcast with him. He and I were on a panel in Chicago -- the date, coincidentally, the date the catechism was changed -- and Cardinal Cupich was explaining the evolution of Catholic theology on this issue. What Pope Francis has done is not just consistent but is the logical extension of John Paul's teaching about the death penalty and Pope Benedict's statements against the death penalty," he added.

"The thing that is, I think, critically different in Pope Francis' pronouncement and the new catechism is that it closes the door on excuses or exceptions that would have allowed the death penalty to take place," he continued. "The practical importance of the new catechism is that it commits the church itself as an institution to formally opposing capital punishment. And on the ground, that will mean more active involvement by the bishops, by the cardinals, by the priests and the laity."

Dunham told CNS the real-world effects of the revision are being felt.

"We've already heard stories of public officials trying to grapple with their moral qualms about capital punishment, and their prior public stance for the death penalty as a policy," he said. "I don't think that we're going to see a change overnight; it's not as though Pope Francis waves an encyclical wand and the laws will change. But we were already seeing a dialogue, and it is a dialogue that is changing attitudes and views one at a time among people in power who will be making decisions on life and death."

Dunham added, "I think that what we are going to see is a continued erosion of death penalty support among formerly pro-death penalty Catholics, and while that's not a huge portion of the population in the United States, it's a portion that is disproportionately on the bench, in prosecutor's offices and in the halls of Congress and the legislature."

The difference between "abolition and nonabolition," he said, is "changing a few votes in a few states."

"So one state at a time, we may see the death penalty abolished," he said. "In retrospect, we can speculate how many of the changed votes are a product of the new catechism. We'll never know for sure. But we can be certain that it will have an effect, because it has already had an effect. We know from discussions with public officials that it has already had an effect."

The center Dec. 14 issued "The Death Penalty in 2018: Year-End Report." In it, it noted that only Oklahoma, Missouri and the U.S. government increased the number of prisoners it had on death row in 2018. The number of prisoners on death row nationwide went down, a streak that started in 2001.

Even in states where the death penalty is permitted, it requires prosecutors in counties to seek it in criminal trials. According to the report, 11 county prosecutors of the 30 counties where capital punishment is most often sought have been removed since 2015, including six this year in Dallas and Bexar (San Antonio) counties in Texas, Orange and San Bernardino counties in California, St. Louis County in Missouri and Jefferson County (Birmingham) in Alabama.

Washington became the 20th state to outlaw capital punishment when a court banned it Oct. 11.

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