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Pope Francis: Bishops who do not know their priests weaken the Church

Vatican City, May 21, 2019 / 04:08 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Monday that each bishop has a duty to have a strong, close relationship with his priests with a firm warning that episcopal aloofness and favoritism weakens the mission of the Church.

“The relationship between us bishops and our priests is, unquestionably, one of the most vital issues in the life of the Church, it is the backbone on which the diocesan community is based,” Pope Francis told Italian bishops gathered at the Vatican for their annual meeting May 20-23.

“Unfortunately, some bishops are struggling to establish acceptable relationships with their priests, thus risking the ruin of their mission and even weakening the mission of the Church itself,” he said.

Pope Francis said that bishops need to understand that at this time many priests feel continually under attack because of the crimes of others in the priesthood, and they need encouragement during this difficult time.

“This requires, first of all, closeness to our priests, who need to find the bishop's door and his heart always open,” he said.

The pope warned the Italian bishops that hierarchical communion “collapses when it is infected by any form of personal power or self-gratification,” but in turn is strengthened by “a spirit of total abandonment and service to the people of God.”

Francis also stressed that bishops must not “fall into the temptation to approach only the sympathetic priests or flatterers” or to “hand over all responsibilities to available priests or ‘climbers.’”

In addition to the importance of the relationship between bishops and priests, Pope Francis outlined two other priorities for the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI) assembly taking place in the Vatican’s synod hall this week: synodality and the implementation of a more streamlined annulment process announced in 2015.

“The success of the reform necessarily passes through a conversion of structures and people; and therefore we do not allow the economic interests of some lawyers or the fear of losing the power of some judicial vicars to hold back or delay the reform,” he said.

The pope concluded his speech by calling on the bishops to be a spiritual father to each of their priests by taking an interest and finding time to listen to everyone, so that each priest feels valued and encouraged by his bishop.

“If a bishop receives the call of a priest, answer within the day, at most the next day, so that that priest will know that he has a father,” Pope Francis recommended.

“The solid relationship between the Bishop and his priests is based on the unconditional love witnessed by Jesus on the cross, which represents the only real rule of behavior for bishops and priests,” Pope Francis said. “It is also based on mutual respect that manifests fidelity to Christ, love for the Church, adherence to the Good News.”

With record number of seminarians, Phoenix diocese pledges support

Phoenix, Ariz., May 21, 2019 / 12:00 am (CNA).- With a record-high number of seminarians, the Diocese of Phoenix has dedicated more funds to support the formation of the Arizona diocese’s future priests.

There are 40 men studying to become priests in the Diocese of Phoenix, according to the Catholic Sun. That is the highest number of seminarians in diocesan history, and double the number of seminarians the diocese had eight years ago.

The formation costs of seminarians are often met through private donations. However, the diocese has allocated an additional $4 million from an ongoing fundraising campaign to support the education and living expenses of future priests.

The Catholic Sun reported that it costs $40,000 to support each seminarian per year. This covers expenses including, tuition, board, and health insurance. Each seminarian undergoes at least five years of official formation.

The money will be taken from the “Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante,” a campaign that began in 2017, and aims to raise $100 million in support of the area’s growing Catholic community. The money will help fund ministries, charities, schools, and churches.

Cande de Leon, director of the Office of Mission Advancement, told the Catholic Sun that a recent diocesan poll found that priestly development is a high priority for parishioners and Church leaders. The vocations aspect of the campaign, he said, will allow the laity to be directly involved with priestly formation by their donations.

“It is important to the Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix,” de Leon said. “It gives every Catholic an opportunity to help play a part in the formation of our priests by making a sacrificial gift. The seminarians are making great sacrifices for us — the ‘Together’ campaign is an opportunity to make a sacrifice to our seminarians before they are priests.”

Anthony Dang, a Phoenix seminarians, told the Catholic Sun that support from his family and the diocese has given him the opportunity to engage in his studies without stress about how to pay for them.

“I am appreciative of what the diocese has done to cover the high cost of seminary formation,” Dang said.

“I am very grateful for that …. I look forward to being with the people and meeting them where they are at and supporting them in their lives, in whatever situation they happen to be in - to be an instrument of God to bring the light of Christ to others.”

Philippine Catholics lead AIDS memorial event

Iloilo City, Philippines, May 20, 2019 / 07:06 pm (CNA).- Filipino Catholic leaders in the central province of Iloilo held an AIDS memorial event over the weekend, to raise awareness and support for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM) was held at St Vincent Ferrer Seminary in Iloilo City on May 19, according to the Philippine Information Agency. The theme of the event was “One Big Fight for PLHIV Health and Rights.”

The event was organized by the Philippine Catholic HIV and AIDS Network (PhilCHAN), part of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Organizers partnered with the health department at the Center for Health Development.

Sister Mila Grace Silab, president of St. Paul University Iloilo and chair of PhilCHAN-Iloilo, said the purpose of the event was “to strengthen our support to our brothers and sisters living with HIV and promote our mission to raise awareness,” the Philippine Information Agency reported.

The event included Mass, a candle lighting ceremony, a theater performance, and music. Father Dan Vicente Cancino, executive secretary of the Commission on Health Care for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, also spoke at the event.

Participants in the event included representatives from government agencies, hospitals, schools, faith groups, businesses and civil society organizations, according to the Philippine Information Agency.

South Sudan president: I was ‘almost trembling’ as Pope Francis begged me to make peace

Juba, South Sudan, May 20, 2019 / 04:32 pm (CNA).- In an unprecedented gesture last month, Pope Francis kissed the feet of several South Sudanese leaders, who were visiting the Vatican for a retreat, in a plea for peace in the country.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir told EWTN News that the exchange, which garnered attention around the world, left him “almost trembling.”

“I felt humbled at the humility of the Holy Father, to bend down on the ground and kiss my feet,” Kiir told EWTN News in an interview May 7.

“I was almost trembling because that thing has not happened before, except at the time when Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. And it should have been the opposite; his disciples should have been the ones to wash his feet...this is what came into my mind when the Pope knelt down.”

Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar met with the pope April 10-11 during a retreat at the Vatican.  The pope hosted the retreat specifically for the leaders, who have been at war with each other for years.

Pope Francis encouraged the South Sudanese leaders to “seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you,” and told them he was praying for them to become peacemakers, who “build peace through dialogue, negotiation and forgiveness.”

“We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God our Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace,” he said.

In 2011, the predominantly Christian South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, which has a Muslim majority and been governed mostly by Islamic law since the 1980s.

A five-year civil war began shortly after the country gained its independence. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.

The fighting has primarily taken place between those forces loyal to Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar. The war has left 2.1 million people internally displaced, with another 2.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations.

“The purpose of this retreat is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will...It is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us, to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan, and to commit ourselves, reinvigorated and reconciled, to the building up of your nation,” the pope told Kiir and Machar.

Kiir and Machar signed a tenuous peace agreement in September 2018, which the country’s Catholic bishops have called “fatally flawed” because it does not address the complex root causes of the conflict.

“Taking the decades and years of mistrust that had existed between these different forces, it’s not an easy thing” to have peace established overnight, Bishop Eduardo Kussala of Tombura-Yambio in South Sudan told EWTN News.

Still, Kussala said the bishops’ conference is grateful for and encouraged by the pope’s meeting with the leaders of opposing groups in South Sudan.

“We have tried to keep the momentum, to continue to work harder and make sure peace is actually in this country….It has again energized us” to serve the leaders and the people, he said.

Kiir said his meeting with Pope Francis was especially meaningful for him, as he grew up in an area of South Sudan that was evangelized primarily by Catholic missionaries, from whom he has learned much.

“Jesus came to the world to teach people to forgive and to live in peace with whoever is near you. And we as Catholics, especially in South Sudan, we have learned a lot from God’s teaching,” he reflected.  

“This is why [although] we have been under oppression all this time...we’re able to reconcile with those oppressors and then we see them as brothers and sisters.”

Kiir said the moment when the Pope displayed such humility was inspiring to him as the leader of the country.

“The feelings that I had at the moment, at that hour, was that I should try my best when I come back to South Sudan. I should try my best to bring peace to my people, so that people reconcile among themselves, and people do not think of fighting again,” Kiir said.

Bishop Kussala said his diocese has been working on peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.

“We feel that finding local answers, local solutions to the problems emerging among us is the way forward,” he said.

The diocese recently united with other church groups to bring 10,000 young men back from the bush, where they had been fighters, and to prepare the community for reconciliation and forgiveness.

“Many of them are being integrated into the government and are already working in the different organized forces. Others are also being engaged in social and economic activities,” he said.

Kussala emphasized the spiritual aspect of the peace process. He said it is important to see one another with the eyes of faith.

“[We must] believe that we are all equal, we are children of God. We have to forgive each other, that is our strong weapon,” he said.

MS-13 gang member suspected in Salvadoran priest’s death

San Salvador, El Salvador, May 20, 2019 / 04:30 pm (CNA).- A priest has been shot and killed by a suspected gang member in El Salvador, Vatican News reported Sunday. His funeral was held today in Sonzacate, El Salvador.

Father Cecilio Perez Cruz, 38, was pastor of San Jose La Majada Parish in Juayu, El Salvador, in the Diocese of Sosonate near the Guatemalan border.

A group of parishioners found his body Saturday morning; he had been shot three times.

There was a handwritten note next to the priest’s body, signed by the Mara Salvatrucha gang saying “he did not pay the rent,” Vatican News reported. Gangs in El Salvador often use extortion as a means of control.

Mara Salvatrucha is more commonly known as MS-13, a gang formed by children of Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 80s.

Bishop Constantino Barrera of Sonsonate asked Catholics to pray for Father Perez, and praised the priest’s pastoral ministry, saying he was “close to his people.”

The Government of El Salvador condemned the murder and in a statement expressed condolences to the priest’s family and to the Catholic community.

"We stand in solidarity with all the victims of violence, of any type of violence, and we ask the authorities to administer justice in all cases," Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador said at a news conference yesterday.

"It's not that we seek revenge, but justice is necessary for the good of the victims and for the good of the whole society, because violence will only be overcome if impunity is not allowed. It is truly worrisome the degree of violence that our country suffers. We must work and pray intensely for peace," the archbishop said as quoted by Catholic News Service.

A local police officer told AFP an investigation was in its earliest stages and the killer was not yet known to the police.

El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder in the world, with 51 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants last year, and gang violence is especially acute.

The Salvadoran government also announced Sunday new orders have been issued to security forces to make sure the priest’s killers are brought to justice, Vatican News said.

Gangs such as MS-13 compete with the government for power and in some cases control entire neighborhoods.

Rick Jones, a policy expert for Catholic Relief Services, told CNA last October that after the United States began deporting large numbers of Salvadorans from Los Angeles after the country’s civil war ended, many of the young people who returned were already involved in gang activity.

“You have a situation where in the mid-1990s most young boys were out of school and unemployed, and only made it to 6th grade. And so they started organizing and [the gangs] spread through the metropolitan area,” he said.

“Then, in 2003, the [US] government decided to put out the ‘Iron Fist’ policy. Meaning zero tolerance. Meaning any kid with baggy clothes, tattoos and a hat on backwards could get picked up and thrown into prison.”

These hardline policies backfired, however, as the homicide rate continued to increase despite the changes.

“The level of violence has risen ever since the country put in these hardline policies,” Jones said.

“What you have in the country, as I said, is you have the underlying conditions of people living in marginal, overcrowded neighborhoods, that were created spontaneously because of the war, so there's no social service, kids don't have access to school, and the communities are all living in fear during the war, and that just gets translated to the next generation. And this generation acts out on that by joining gangs.”

“I think it's the latest manifestation of both structural issues, lack of opportunity, and then trauma from the war getting worked out in a new way, and thirdly the levels of repression that they've had now under the Iron Fist policies for over a decade,” he said.

Clergy in El Salvador continue to be outspoken about human rights violations, in the country, with many working with young people, to try to turn them from gang violence, while also speaking out against El Salvador’s highly overcrowded prison system and the hardline policies that have led to it.  

“We're now working with governments, we're trying to work with the police, to try to help them understand that the repressive tactics are not being effective, and to get better community policing, and more targeted, focused policing, and working with the kids before they get to the point where they need to be locked up...We need to work with adolescents and their families before they get engaged in gangs,” Jones said.

“You have to work with the guys that are locked up. So that when they get out, they don't just go back into the gangs or into criminal behavior, that they actually become peace promoters among some of these neighborhoods.”

Catholic organizations and leaders in El Salvador have recently decried the "impunity" with which gangs often operate, including in the death of another Salvadoran priest killed last year during Holy Week.

Fr. Walter Osmir Vásquez Jiménez was shot and killed the afternoon of March 29, 2018, Holy Thursday, on a dirt road outside of the town of Lolotique, El Salvador, as he was on his way to celebrate Mass. The local press attributed the crime to gangs active in the area.