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Pope Francis expresses sorrow as Sydney knife attack shocks Australia

Pope Francis speaks at the Vatican's Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2024. / Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

Sydney, Australia, Apr 13, 2024 / 12:14 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis has reacted with deep sorrow at news on Saturday from Australia, where a 40-year-old man armed with a large knife killed six people in a Sydney shopping center and injured several others, including a 9-month-old child. 

“Pope Francis was deeply saddened to learn of the violent attack in Sydney, and he sends the assurance of his spiritual closeness to all affected by this senseless tragedy, especially those who are now mourning the loss of a loved one,” read a telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, on behalf of the pope. 

The Holy Father offered prayers for the deceased, the wounded, and the first responders, invoking divine blessings of consolation and strength for the nation.

Daniel Ang, director of the Sydney Centre for Evangelization at the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney, reached out via X (formerly Twitter) to express solidarity and announce spiritual support: “We join in prayer for the victims and families affected by the horrific events at Bondi Junction today. The three Sunday Masses at the Catholic Parish of Bondi tomorrow will be offered for the repose of the souls that have passed away and all those others affected by these events.”

The bloody attack occurred in the busy Westfield Bondi Junction shopping center on April 13, the first day of the school holidays — a time when many families were out, adding to the shock and impact of the event. 

Five victims died at the scene, while another person succumbed to their injuries in the hospital. Eight others remain hospitalized, some in critical condition, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported.

The attacker, who was known to the police but remains unidentified, was shot and killed by a policewoman at the scene. According to police, the man allegedly lunged at the officer before he was fatally shot.

Authorities have cautioned against speculation about the attacker’s motives, emphasizing that early indications suggest the incident was not terrorism-related. Police Commissioner Karen Webb said while the motive was unclear, evidence indicated the attack was not related to terrorism: “There’s no suggestion anyone was targeted but that could change.”

The incident has shocked the nation. The acting premier of New South Wales, Penny Sharpe, told journalists the attack was “beyond distressing” and vowed as much information as possible would be shared with the public.

Investigations are ongoing, with the Australian Federal Police collaborating with local authorities to unravel the full circumstances of the attack.

Australia was previously rocked by a terror attack in Sydney almost 10 years ago. The 2014 Lindt Café siege saw a lone jihadist gunman hold 18 hostages, leading to three deaths, including the gunman.

Sudan civil war leaves no seminarians and almost no Catholic Church

A priest celebrates Mass in Sudan before the outset of war. / Credit: ACN

ACI Prensa Staff, Apr 13, 2024 / 08:30 am (CNA).

The third Sudanese civil war has terribly affected the entire country but especially the local Catholic Church, which — according to the pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) — has no seminarians and has practically disappeared from the country.

Since April 15, 2023, armed clashes have broken out in Sudan between the Army, commanded by President Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary group led by Mohammed “Hemedti” Hamdan Dagalo, the vice president of the country.

Both sides jointly deposed the transitional regime, established after the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir in 2019. Once their objective was achieved, the Sudanese Army and the RSF clashed for control of the country’s wealth, especially for the gold and oil.

Hamdan owns several gold mines in the country’s north. In 2022, according to official figures, Sudan exported nearly $2.5 billion in gold (41.8 tons), making it the third-largest producer of this precious metal in Africa.

The army side of the conflict controls real estate and companies of all kinds, which they refuse to hand over to a civilian government that doesn’t align with their interests.

According to ACN, none of the belligerents is willing to give in, and the future of the civil war looks bleak.

During the last year, more than 13,900 people have died as a result of the violence and more than 8.1 million people have been forced to leave their homes (1.8 million people have fled the country), according to official figures.

This tragic situation has reduced the presence of the Catholic Church in Sudan “to almost nothing,” according to the pontifical foundation. Kinga Schierstaedt, head of ACN projects in Sudan, noted that before the war, Catholics represented only 5% of the population.

The Catholic Church “was tolerated and could run some hospitals and schools, although it wasn’t allowed to openly proclaim the faith,” he said. More than 90% of the Sudanese population professes Sunni Islam as a religion.

After the overthrow of the dictator Al-Bashir, some guarantees of religious freedom improved in the African country, such as the abolition of various punishments mandated by the Sharia penal code (Islamic religious law regulating all public and private aspects of life).

ACN explained that the Sudanese people have always considered the Church as a “safe haven” and that when the war broke out many took refuge in churches. However, many missionaries and religious communities have been forced to leave the country, so parishes, hospitals, and schools have stopped functioning. 

The Khartoum preparatory seminary also closed its doors. Some seminarians managed to flee to the neighboring country of South Sudan, where they continue their training. Many Christians have had to leave the country on foot or by way of the Nile, only to end up in refugee camps, where survival “is a daily battle.”

Meanwhile, the bishop of Khartoum, Michael Didi, has not been able to return to the city, and the bishop of El Obeid, Tombe Trile, now lives in the cathedral because his house was partially destroyed.

While the continued existence of the Church in Sudan is in question, there are hopeful signs that the destruction will not be total: “Sixteen new Christians were baptized in Port Sudan during the Easter Vigil and 34 adults were confirmed in Kosti. So we have to keep hope alive in the midst of darkness,” one of ACN’s project partners in the country said.

Sudan and South Sudan share the same bishops’ conference. From this sign of unity, ACN continues to support the most vulnerable and the victims of the violence of war.

“The Church in South Sudan is getting ready for the future by helping the Sudanese Christians to prepare for tomorrow’s peace,” Schierstadt said.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Catholic bishops in Kenya urge government to address doctors strike

Members of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB). / Credit: KCCB

ACI Africa, Apr 13, 2024 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Members of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops (KCCB) are calling on the Kenyan government to “speedily” address the concerns of doctors in the East African country where health services remain paralyzed due to a protracted strike of medical doctors.

Through the strike, which is in its fourth week, doctors in Kenya are seeking better pay per the terms of collective bargaining agreements signed in 2017. The doctors signed the contentious agreements with the Ministry of Health on June 30, 2017, and then with county governments on July 6, 2017.

Addressing the press on Thursday, April 11, KCCB members made an appeal to the government, asking officials to “speedily address the legitimate concerns of the doctors.”

“Our health provision is in the hands of the medical fraternity,” the bishops said. “We ask both parties to seek dialogue and settle the matter once and for all.”

Expressing optimism that dialogue is capable of addressing the stalemate between the government and the doctors, the bishops also said: “The situation is deplorable and we continue witnessing the misery of the sick.”

“Many have died and many are deteriorating in their sickness because of the current standoff,” the bishops said while recognizing the doctors’ right to seek justice and equity.

The bishops also said they recognize the uniqueness of the medical fraternity, which they say should be vigilant when deciding on strikes, “as it touches on human life most closely.”

“While we believe there may be merit-worthy demands, we have always urged the doctors and medical practitioners to place the life and interests of the patients first,” they said. “We still do the same. The life of a human person should never be used as a bargaining currency.”

“Every life is worth more than any financial or employment gain. We urge the government on one hand, and doctors and clinical officers on the other, to seek a working arrangement that does not put the lives of the patients at risk, so that lives are not lost or threatened even during the industrial action,” the bishops said.

The Church leaders said they find it troubling that people’s suffering has been worsened by the inability of faith-based health facilities to fully respond to the crisis due to finances. They urged the government to pay the debts owed to faith-based organizations, which own several health facilities in the country, to enable them to provide the necessary care to the sick.

“We have on various occasions raised with the government the very unjust fact that faith-based hospitals are owed huge amounts by the National Hospital Insurance Fund,” the bishops said.

“As of now, this has accrued to over 2 billion Kenya shillings,” they added. “The effect is that most of our hospitals are crippled and not able to operate optimally and therefore offer services to the needy. In fact, many are now unable to procure medicines and pay salaries.”

This story was originally published by ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, and has been adapted by CNA.

‘Christ wants to be with us’: how Catholic ministries are responding to the mental health crisis

null / Photo credit: Chanintorn.v / Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Apr 13, 2024 / 07:30 am (CNA).

In October 2023, the U.S. bishops announced the launch of a mental health initiative to address the high rates of anxiety and depression, especially in youth. In recent years, Catholic organizations and ministries throughout the nation have been dedicating more resources to address the mental health crisis.

The percentage of U.S. adults diagnosed with depression has risen almost 10% since 2015, reaching 29% according to a 2023 Gallup poll. A higher percentage of teenagers — 7% more since 2019 — report persistent sadness and hopelessness, according to the Center for Disease Control data, which found that almost half of U.S. teens report experiencing these feelings. 

A number of events and projects focused on mental health and healing have been launched by Catholic groups and institutions this spring. 

Making mental health ministry ‘available in every Catholic parish’

The Catholic Association of Mental Health Ministers (CMHM) will host its second conference at the end this month for mental health ministry leaders in the U.S. “to network and support each other and share ideas, because this is a very new ministry within the Church,” said Deacon Ed Shoener, the organization’s president.

Shoener helped found CMHM to build mental health ministries in the Catholic Church in 2019 soon after his daughter, Katie, who struggled with bipolar disorder, died by suicide in 2016. 

Shoener has traveled around the world educating Catholics on how to build mental health ministries in their local church communities. 

“Our hope is that someday, mental health ministry [would] be available in every Catholic parish,” he told CNA in a phone call. “When someone is struck with a mental health challenge or a mental illness, the first place that everyone realizes they can go, where they’ll find understanding and compassion and support, is the Catholic Church.”

Shoener noted that the Church can offer “spiritual support” while also “encourage[ing] people” to get professional help, just like with physical illnesses.  

The upcoming conference “Building a Culture of Community: Equipping Leaders for Mental Health Ministry,” set to take place April 25–27 in Mundelein, Illinois, a northern suburb of Chicago, is already sold out. Those interested may attend virtually. 

Shoener noted that the interest reflects the need. 

“There’s definitely a need in the Church. There’s no doubt about that,” Shoener noted. “Any place you go, literally, any place you go in the world, there is need and interest in this ministry.”

“I’m convinced the Holy Spirit sees that this is a need of the times and the Church,” he said. “The body of Christ is responding to it.”

Speakers at the conference include the association’s chaplain, Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix, Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia, and Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability

Deacon Ed Shoener (left) participates in a panel discussion with Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, at the Catholic Association of Mental Health Ministers (CMHM) conference in 2022. Credit: Photo courtesy of CMHM
Deacon Ed Shoener (left) participates in a panel discussion with Charleen Katra, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, at the Catholic Association of Mental Health Ministers (CMHM) conference in 2022. Credit: Photo courtesy of CMHM

Shoener noted that while the “structured” mental health ministry is new, the Church has been dealing with mental health issues since the time of Christ. 

“Jesus understands mental health, mental illness, because he’s human, and it’s been part of the human condition forever,” Shoener said. “Just like he understands physical suffering, he understands mental health and mental illness.”

Shoener noted that he’s visited other nations to discuss mental health issues. He has traveled to Canada, India, Italy, and South Africa to work with leaders and local Catholics on mental health ministry.  

“The stigma or the types of beliefs about mental illness might vary from culture to culture,” he noted. “But the actual occurrence of mental illness as an illness — it doesn’t discriminate based on culture or ethnicity. Everybody’s affected by depression, anxiety, serious mood disorders, schizophrenia.”

“It’s pretty clear to me that the Holy Spirit is moving and guiding this, because Christ wants to be with us in these struggles and these sufferings,” he said of the ministry.

Seeking local leaders

Another event this spring focused on mental health will be held in Maryland. The Archdiocese of Baltimore is hosting a St. Dymphna Mental Wellness Retreat in partnership with Seeds of Hope at the National Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on May 15. 

The retreat will include Mass for families as well as breakout sessions on relevant topics. 

“We are hoping to reach people who live with their own mental health challenges and their loved ones,” Melissa Freymann, a clinical mental health therapist who is organizing the retreat in her role as a mental health ministry consultant for the archdiocese, told CNA. 

Freymann said the retreat is “a day of accompaniment and support” as well as a “day to gather” to launch the “next stage” of the Archdiocese of Baltimore Mental Health Initiative. 

“We have a special breakout for those who have lost loved ones to suicide and another for those who want to start a mental health ministry in their parish,” she noted. 

Freymann explained that Catholic mental health ministry “meets people where they are at.” The ministry “is not professional mental health care” but rather “a resource” that “offers hope and support.” 

Yvonne Wenger, an organizer of the retreat and director of public relations for the archdiocese, said that one of the goals for the retreat is to “reach participants who are interested in establishing ministries in their parish communities.” 

Wenger told CNA that some local churches are sending delegates to the retreat who “are interested “in exploring the possibility of establishing a ministry.” 

“We want to help people understand what the ministry could look like,” she explained.

The retreat itself is named for St. Dymphna, the patron saint of mental illness. The choice of location — the Seton Shrine — is equally fitting given Seton’s experience with anxiety and depression.  

A statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the Seton Legacy Garden at the Seton Shrine in Maryland. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Seton Shrine
A statue of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in the Seton Legacy Garden at the Seton Shrine in Maryland. Credit: Photo courtesy of the Seton Shrine

“Based on the review of her writings, there’s been a lot of speculation that it seemed like she dealt with some significant anxieties,” noted Shoener, who is speaking at the retreat. “Certainly, some of her children had their challenges with alcoholism and addiction — she certainly understood mental health conditions and severe grief.” 

“It’s an example with Mother Seton — and many other saints — that mental illness and mental health challenges are by no means an impediment to holiness, to great holiness,” he added, noting how St. Oscar Romero lived with obsessive compulsive disorder, while Blessed Rutilio Grande had schizophrenia.

“God can overcome everything,” Shoener said.

The saints ‘went before us’

The Seton Shrine itself is also growing its mental health ministry through a series of Easter reflections by Catholic writer Paula Huston.

“There’s different lenses [through which] you could look at Elizabeth Seton’s life, and definitely one of them is the struggles and the loss that she experienced and her need to overcome that,” said Rob Judge, executive director of the Seton Shrine, who told CNA that he sees the shrine as “a place of healing.” 

Judge said the shrine staff took inspiration from “the larger Catholic world,” including initiatives by the bishops and others in the Church for anyone who is struggling with mental illness or health.

“It’s an issue that touches all of us at different points, either more or less directly,” Judge noted. 

While the series is “applicable to all stages” of life, Huston wrote each installment with “young people” in mind, Judge said. 

“We see a lot that that generation is maybe struggling more than some previous generations and just discovering meaning in life and their way,” he noted. “And certainly [the] culture has many distractions for them.”

“We framed [the series] around the woundedness that we all have, and then through this series of writings, applied Elizabeth’s example to it,” he explained. 

“Many people think of Elizabeth Seton, and they think of founding Catholic schools, and they think of her as a teacher,” Judge said. “They often don’t necessarily think of her as a child who was lonely, or a teenager who felt left out and didn’t know where to turn at times, and a mom who was trying to support her kids and came into the Church and then felt rejection.”

He noted that these feelings of “loneliness and rejection, abandonment, feeling like you don’t control your life, or powerlessness” are “very human experiences.”  

“We’re not alone,” Judge said. “That’s hopefully what we learned through the saints, is that we’re not alone. They went before us.”

Pro-life leader: State-by-state approach to abortion will lead movement to ‘ash heap of history’

Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser told EWTN News the pro-life movement is grounded in the dignity of the individual "and has never stopped at a state line." / Credit: Screenshot/EWTN News in Depth

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Apr 13, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

As pro-life politicians try to figure out the most effective way to defend unborn life, a top leader in the movement argues that leaving abortion policies up to the states — rather than pursuing national pro-life policies — will push the movement into the “ash heap of history.” 

“Where is the appropriate battleground for this most important human rights battle of our time?” Marjorie Dannenfelser, a Catholic and CEO of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, rhetorically asked during an interview with “EWTN News In-Depth."

“Only in the states, or is it a matter for our nation?” Dannenfelser continued. “If this movement cedes the territory to the states only and says that your geography is predictive of whether you live or die in our country, then this movement is headed for the ash heap of history, in my opinion.”

Dannenfelser’s comments come just days after presumptive 2024 Republican presidential nominee and former president Donald Trump announced that states should determine abortion policies. He said abortion policy is “all about the will of the people” and that “now it’s up to the states to do the right thing.”

“Many states will be different,” Trump said April 8 upon announcing his position on the issue. “Many will have a different number of weeks, or some will have more conservative [policies] than others, and that’s what they will be.”

On Wednesday, during a visit to Atlanta, Trump said he would not sign a national abortion ban if Congress sent one to his desk when asked the question by a reporter. 

Trump’s policy approach to abortion puts the former president at odds with Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America and other pro-life activists, who have called on lawmakers to pass a federal law that prohibits abortion at the 15th week of pregnancy, with exceptions in cases of rape, incest or a threat to the life of the mother.

During the interview, Dannenfelser said one can debate whether such a 15-week bill is strong enough, but that the federal government needs to be starting somewhere — and cannot simply defer the issue to states. 

“The most important question on the table is whether the federal government has anything to say,” Dannenfelser added. “Is there anything rooted in our Constitution that points to the value and dignity of every human life, or does it not?”

Despite her disagreements with Trump on how to approach abortion policy, Dannenfelser said she still supports his candidacy to unseat incumbent President Joe Biden. 

“[The Biden] administration, if they have a Senate and a House, would wipe out every single pro-life protection,” Dannenfelser said. “They will eliminate the filibuster. They will do that. So the contrast means, yes, of course, we have to elect [Trump].”

Biden has urged Congress to pass legislation that would codify into law the abortion standards that had been in place under the now-defunct Roe v. Wade decision. Such a law would prohibit states from passing most pro-life policies in addition to overturning the ones currently in place. In his budget proposal, Biden has also requested that Congress eliminate the current ban on taxpayer funding for abortion.

Although Trump has sparred with some pro-life figures over the past year, the former president has taken credit for appointing three of the Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade, which allowed states to adopt pro-life laws.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in 2022, more than 20 states have passed pro-life laws that put further restrictions on abortion. However, when abortion policies have been put up to a vote via statewide referenda, every pro-life initiative has failed and every pro-abortion initiative has passed — including in Republican-leaning states. This string of electoral defeats has led some pro-life lawmakers to reconsider their approaches to abortion policy.

As hunger crisis unfolds in Ethiopia, global charity teams up with Catholic nuns to feed children

Sister Medhin with school children in Tigray, Ethiopia, in March 2024. The Scotland-based organization Mary’s Meals, which feeds almost 2.5 million children in some of the world’s poorest countries, has been partnering with the Daughters of Charity in Tigray since 2017 to provide meals for thousands of children. / Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024

CNA Newsroom, Apr 13, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

When the founder and CEO of the global school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals visited northern Ethiopia last month, he confirmed reports of a widespread hunger crisis unfolding rapidly in Tigray in the aftermath of civil war and ongoing drought. 

“It’s as extreme as anything I’ve ever witnessed in terms of the current suffering and the potential for more deterioration unless there is a significant intervention,” Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow said.

The Scotland-based organization Mary’s Meals, which feeds almost 2.5 million children in some of the world’s poorest countries, has been partnering with the Daughters of Charity in Tigray since 2017 to provide meals for thousands of children. 

Mary's Meals founder Magnus MacFarlane Barrow is pictured here with Daughter of Charity Sister Medhin Tesfay during his visit to Tigray in March 2024. The two Catholic organizations have partnered for many years in the region to feed children in schools. Credit: Armstrong Studios//2024
Mary's Meals founder Magnus MacFarlane Barrow is pictured here with Daughter of Charity Sister Medhin Tesfay during his visit to Tigray in March 2024. The two Catholic organizations have partnered for many years in the region to feed children in schools. Credit: Armstrong Studios//2024

Even when borders to the region were closed during a brutal two-year war between forces allied to the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Daughters of Charity, led by Sister Medhin Tesfay, remained in the region. The religious order is believed to have been the only one operating there during the conflict.

“Thankfully [the sisters] had access to supplies because of our ongoing school feeding/food aid work and were determined to do what they could to reach those most in need,” MacFarlane-Barrow told CNA. “There were many challenges because of the ongoing conflict, the regular communications blackouts, the disruption to banking services, and closure of supply routes, but our partner colleagues are not only amazingly dedicated but also very resourceful, and the outreach we achieved together during the conflict was truly remarkable.”

The Daughters of Charity has supported vulnerable people in Tigray since the early 1970s. The order’s first house there, where Sister Medhin lives and serves, was established in 1973. There are 65 Daughters of Charity in Ethiopia, and 15 are based in Tigray. 

A growing and largely unreported crisis

The war, which began in November 2020 and raged for two years, displaced millions, destroyed essential infrastructure and health services, left untold numbers injured and traumatized, and claimed an estimated 600,000 lives. After the war officially ended, interruptions to aid supplies in 2023 compounded by failed rainy seasons have resulted in severe drought, accelerating the region’s humanitarian crisis. Journalists still struggle to gain access to the area, so the situation is largely underreported.

A woman and girl in Tigray walk with supplies. Founder and CEO of the global school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow visited northern Ethiopia in March 2024 and confirmed reports of a widespread hunger crisis unfolding rapidly in Tigray in the aftermath of a two-year civil war and ongoing drought. Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024
A woman and girl in Tigray walk with supplies. Founder and CEO of the global school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow visited northern Ethiopia in March 2024 and confirmed reports of a widespread hunger crisis unfolding rapidly in Tigray in the aftermath of a two-year civil war and ongoing drought. Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) projections indicate that the majority of Tigray is currently experiencing emergency levels of hunger, and some households will likely be in “catastrophe/famine by July.”

In the biggest hospital in the region’s capital of Mekelle, Dr. Abraha Gebreegziabher, a local pediatrician, told Mary’s Meals that more and more children are dying from malnutrition in the hospital. 

“We are seeing three times as many cases of malnutrition as normal, and the mortality rate is five times higher. The number of children dying from malnutrition was quite stable for the last 13 years, but since the war, it’s doubled,” he said. “Previous deaths were generally linked to other health conditions, but now malnutrition is a singular cause on its own.”

Tigray is home to over 7 million people, and more than 4.5 million people there are now in need of aid. According to MacFarlane-Barrow, over a million are displaced and living in camps, 75% of lactating mothers are malnourished, and more than half of the children are out of school, with many more continuing to drop out because of hunger.

Pandemic closures and war

In 2020, when schools closed initially due to the pandemic, Mary’s Meals helped the Daughters of Charity to provide take-home rations to families with children who had previously been receiving meals at school. 

A boy about to be served a meal at Tsehafe Werdi Primary School in Tigray, Ethiopia, in March 2024. The Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary's Meals, has provided meals to thousands of children through a school feeding program since 2017. Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024
A boy about to be served a meal at Tsehafe Werdi Primary School in Tigray, Ethiopia, in March 2024. The Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary's Meals, has provided meals to thousands of children through a school feeding program since 2017. Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024

As schools prepared to reopen later that year, the civil war broke out, and millions of people across Tigray fled to seek safety. Across Mekelle, schools became temporary shelters for internally displaced people (IDPs). Despite communications blackouts, limited access to food and cash, and ongoing violence, Mary’s Meals continued to assist the Daughters of Charity so they could provide meals and other essential support to more than 30,000 people during the conflict. 

After the cease-fire, as some people returned to their villages, the Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary’s Meals, continued to deliver food aid. As soon as schools were able to reopen in 2023, the sisters restarted their in-school feeding as quickly as possible, concentrating on areas of great need in Eastern Tigray. The school feeding program was fully reinstated at the end of 2023.

However, in some parts of the region, schools have remained closed, and people have been unable to return to their villages. Regional statistics suggest that more than half of all primary-age children in Tigray (53%) are not currently enrolled in school, with the situation made worse by serious staff shortages and damage to school buildings sustained during the war. Approximately 15,000 teachers are still unaccounted for, and 95% of classrooms in the Central Zone of Tigray, an area where much of Mary’s Meals school feeding takes place, are damaged because of the war.

An appeal to help brothers and sisters in need 

“It’s hard to exaggerate how many different things are making life so difficult here,” MacFarlane-Barrow said in a video made during his visit to Tigray last month. “[This] famine could become one like the early ’80s when a million people died. Surely at this stage in the history of mankind, that can’t happen again in this world of plenty. We need to act. We need to grow our school feeding program; everyone is asking if they have a future … let’s keep going with all our strength, urgently.”

Even when borders to the region were closed during a brutal two-year war between forces allied to the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Daughters of Charity, led by Sister Medhin (picutred here) remained in the region. The religious order is believed to have been the only one operating there during the conflict. Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024
Even when borders to the region were closed during a brutal two-year war between forces allied to the Ethiopian federal government and Eritrea and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the Daughters of Charity, led by Sister Medhin (picutred here) remained in the region. The religious order is believed to have been the only one operating there during the conflict. Credit: Armstrong Studios // 2024

Mary’s Meals is currently holding an appeal to raise funds to be able to expand its program to reach thousands more children with meals.

In a recent video, Sister Medhin discussed the sisters’ challenges in Tigray, exhorting everyone to act.

“Our voices, our suffering, our pain, should be heard. And accordingly, we expect a concrete response by the people who have power in their hands, and by those who can share maybe from the little they have, and from the excess they have,” she said.

“I really want them to do something very, very soon because we don’t want more people to die,” she continued. “We are talking about people dying of hunger in the 21st century. That should put many in shame. It is shameful when you know your brother and your sister in any part of the world [are hungry]. I just want [people] to do what is within their hands… All you need is a heart that is loving and a mind that can decide to do it.”

Police arrest man suspected of robbing Catholic parishes in fake priest scam

Police in California on April 11, 2024, announced the arrest of a man suspected of posing as a priest to gain access to, and rob, several Catholic parishes across the country. / Credit: Diocese of Brooklyn; Riverside County Sheriff

CNA Staff, Apr 12, 2024 / 17:30 pm (CNA).

Police in California have announced the arrest of a man suspected of posing as a priest to gain access to, and rob, several Catholic parishes across the country. 

Multiple Catholic parishes in both New York and Texas over the last several months reported encountering a man who in some cases identified himself as “Father Martin” and who managed to gain access to private parish areas and steal hundreds of dollars. 

The scammer was most recently reported at several New York-area parishes; at one he succeeded in stealing nearly $1,000.

On Thursday of this week, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in Riverside, California, announced in a media release that they had apprehended the individual suspected of perpetrating those scams. 

The sheriff’s department said that on Wednesday they had located a car matching the description of the vehicle connected to the robberies. 

“The driver of the vehicle, identified as 45-year-old Malin Rostas, a resident of New York, was taken into custody for an outstanding felony warrant out of Pennsylvania for burglary,” the department said.

Local investigators “discovered Rostas was ‘Father Martin’ and had just attempted to burglarize a local church,” the sheriff’s office said. 

Rostas was booked on the outstanding warrant, police said, and he will additionally be charged with the attempted burglary. 

The sheriff’s office “believes there may be additional burglary victims,” they said. Investigation of the case is ongoing. 

In New York last month, the scammer gained access to a Queens parish as well as the Sisters of St. Dominic of Amityville’s motherhouse on Long Island. He also reportedly attempted the scam at a Brooklyn parish last year.

Last fall, meanwhile, he showed up at six different parishes in the Diocese of Dallas and also managed to steal several hundred dollars from a Houston parish.

Pope Francis’ approval rating remains high in the U.S. but has slipped since 2021

Pope Francis waves to pilgrims in St. Peter's Square gathered for his weekly general audience on April 3, 2024. / Credit: Vatican Media

CNA Staff, Apr 12, 2024 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

new Pew Research study has found that three-quarters of Catholics in the U.S. view Pope Francis favorably, though that figure has dipped 8% since 2021. 

In addition, the Pew report suggests that a majority of Catholics in the U.S. want the Church to change its teaching on a number of key issues, including the all-male priesthood, contraception, and so-called same-sex marriage. But broken down by political affiliation, significant differences in opinion emerge. 

“Regardless of their partisan leanings, most U.S. Catholics regard Francis as an agent of change. Overall, about 7 in 10 say the current pope represents a change in direction for the Church, including 42% who say he represents a major change,” the new April 12 Pew report reads. 

Francis’ approval rating among U.S. Catholics reached 90% in Pew’s 2015 survey. By September 2018 — at a time when the entire Church was reeling from fresh scandals related to sexual abuse — the pope’s approval rating stood at just 72%, the lowest of his papacy. It had ticked back up to 83% three years later, before its latest dip to 75% in February of this year.

Pope Francis’ late predecessor Benedict XVI initially had a low approval rating of 67% among U.S. Catholics upon taking office in 2005. By 2008, however, his approval rating had reached 83%, and he closed out his papacy at 74%, in 2013.

Neither Benedict nor Francis has yet achieved the lofty heights set by the saintly Pope John Paul II, who in 1990 and 1996 garnered approval from 93% of U.S. Catholics, according to Pew’s data.

Broken down by self-described party affiliation, 35% of Catholic Republicans and Republican leaners said they have an “unfavorable” view of Pope Francis, compared with just 7% of Catholic Democrats and Democratic leaners. Catholic Republicans’ views of Pope Francis have gotten more negative over the past decade, while the views of Catholic Democrats have not changed much, Pew says. 

“The partisan gap in views of Pope Francis is now as large as it’s ever been in our surveys,” Pew noted.

“Roughly 9 in 10 Catholics who are Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party hold a positive view of him, compared with 63% of Catholics who are Republicans or lean Republican.” 

Pew asked respondents about their opinions on several hot-button issues related to the Church’s teaching and found that the Catholics most likely to be in favor of changing Church teaching largely identify as Democrats or lean Democratic (57%), and many say they seldom or never attend Mass (56%).

In contrast, Catholics who mostly say the Church should not change its teachings are predominantly Republicans or lean Republican (72%), and many say they attend Mass at least once a week (59%).

Of those surveyed, 83% said they favored a change of the Church’s teaching on contraception; 75% said the Church should allow Catholics to take Communion even if they are unmarried and living with a romantic partner; 69% said priests should be allowed to get married; 64% said women should be allowed to become priests; and 54% said the Church should recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples. (These findings are not markedly different from those of a decade ago, Pew says.)

Catholics who attend Mass regularly — once a week or more — are far more inclined than those who go less often to say the Church should take a “traditional or conservative” approach on questions about the priesthood and sexuality, Pew says. 

Argentine archbishop found guilty of gender-based violence against nuns

Archbishop Mario Antonio Cargnello of Salta, Argentina. / Credit: Archdiocese of Salta

ACI Prensa Staff, Apr 12, 2024 / 16:30 pm (CNA).

A civil court judge in Argentina’s Salta province ruled in favor of the Carmelite sisters in Salta, the provincial capital, in a case of gender-based violence against the local archbishop, Mario Antonio Cargnello, a bishop emeritus, and two priests, ordering them to undergo psychological treatment and training on gender issues in addition to an existing restraining order.

The case involves the Discalced Carmelite sisters of San Bernardo convent, who have been in conflict with the archdiocese for years. In addition, the bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Nuevo de Julio, Martín de Elizalde, is also among the defendants along with the judicial vicar, Father Loyola Pinto y de Sancristóval, and Father Lucio Ajaya.

According to the Argentine news site Infobae, the issue underlying this situation is the conflict over the alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary to María Livia Galliano de Obeid in Salta, a phenomenon that has received support from the women religious but has not yet been approved by the Catholic Church.

The phenomenon began more than two decades ago and led to attributing to Mary the title of “the Immaculate Mother of the Divine Eucharistic Heart of Jesus,” which is under observation and study by the Church but each year attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in Salta.

From the time the apparitions were made public, the Carmelites gave their support to the visionary. However, the Archdiocese of Salta questioned the authenticity of the phenomenon.

In the ruling issued April 5 by Judge Carolina Cáceres Moreno, the underlying issue was not addressed but specifically the object of the complaint: the relationship between the archbishop and the nuns, which reached the maximum point of conflict when the sisters became part of a foundation that gave a sort of legal status to the apparitions.

Consequently, in 2021 the Holy See sent Bishop de Elizalde, accompanied by Sister Isabel Guirov, as apostolic visitors in order to “analyze the problems raised.”

The following year, the Holy See ordered the religious congregation to “not in any way get involved in activities linked to the so-called spiritual work ‘I am the Immaculate Mother of the Divine Eucharistic Heart of Jesus’ and ‘I am the Most Sacred Eucharistic Heart of Jesus,’” the name of the spiritual movement formed around the alleged apparitions.

The meetings the sisters had with the archbishop, the apostolic visitors, and other factors are apparently what led the nuns to file a complaint for gender-based violence.

According to Infobae, the judge concluded that the Discalced Carmelites “have suffered acts of gender violence of an institutional scope of a religious, physical, psychological, and financial nature for a period of more than 20 years.”

She also pointed out “the obstruction/delay/refusal in the election of the prioress and the loan of money to the bishop, which hasn’t been returned to date, which constituted psychological and financial gender violence.”

The judge also made reference to “what happened during the apostolic visit carried out by Bishop Martín de Elizalde, in which they suffered psychological gender violence.”

As a result of these events, the judge determined that the four defendants must “undergo psychological treatment with a gender perspective in order to work on patterns of relationships and acts of violence.” Therefore, for six months they must submit monthly proof of compliance to the court. In addition, they must undergo training on gender violence “in order to modify behavioral patterns.”

The judge also enjoined women religious to go on “retreats and/or do spiritual exercises in order to psychologically process the consequences of the gender violence suffered; being required to present the respective proofs to this court on a monthly basis for a period of six months.”

Eduardo Romani, Cargnello’s defense lawyer, criticized the verdict as “flawed” and lacking any foundation in the law. He has already filed an appeal.

“We are facing a totally flawed process where the basic norms established for gender issues were not met. In our understanding the ruling exceeds the powers granted to Ms. Judge Cáceres Moreno, by which she clearly failed to comply with her duties,” Romani told Nuevo Diario de Salta, stressing that the judge’s decision doesn’t comply with Law 7888, which deals with protection against gender violence.

For the lawyer, these alleged errors make it clear that his client was not fairly treated nor in accordance with the law and that he was prejudged “from the beginning of the case,” pointing out that there “was a marked lack of respect on the part of the magistrate, who at all times addressed in a derogatory manner the highest authority of the Church in the province of Salta, something she did not do with the rest of those involved in this trial.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

‘Irena’s Vow’: The true story of a Polish Catholic nurse who hid Jews during the Holocaust

Sophie Nélisse portrays Irena Gut Opdyke in the new film "Irena's Vow." / Credit: Quiver Distribution

CNA Staff, Apr 12, 2024 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

A new film depicting the incredible true story of Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic nurse who risked her own life to hide Jews persecuted by Nazi Germany during World War II, debuts in theaters across the country April 15-16. 

“Irena’s Vow” is told through the eyes of strong-willed 19-year-old Irena Gut. When Gut is promoted to be the housekeeper in the home of a highly respected Nazi officer after learning that the Jewish ghetto is about to be liquidated, she makes it her mission to help the Jewish workers.

Gut decides to shelter them in the safest place she can think of — the basement of the German major’s house. Over the next two years, she uses her creativity and quick thinking to keep her friends safe until she is able to help them escape. 

Actress Sophie Nélisse portrays Gut in the film. She and Jeannie Smith, Irena’s real-life daughter, spoke to CNA about what they hope viewers will take away from the film and what it’s like for Smith to share and watch her mother’s story on the big screen.

Sophie Nélisse portrays Irena Gut Opdyke in new film "Irena's Vow." Credit: Quiver Distribution
Sophie Nélisse portrays Irena Gut Opdyke in new film "Irena's Vow." Credit: Quiver Distribution

“I immediately fell in love with Irena’s story because I felt it was just so relevant to this day, and I think there’s so much to learn from her story and a tale that brings a lot of hope, I find, despite all the horrific events,” Nélisse said. 

As a Catholic, Smith shared that her mother’s faith “100% played a role” in the work she did to save the lives of Jews. 

“She was raised that people mattered and that the differences in people did not matter,” she said. “They were all human beings and part of one human family and stood under God created by him.”

Smith added that Gut had “childlike trust.”

“[God] would open a path and she would walk in it and then it was up to him to take care of her, and her job was just to do what she was supposed to do — to follow. She kept that her whole life. It just was part of her. It wasn’t even something she had to think about,” Smith said.

Gut had no intention of ever sharing her story when she came to the United States, Smith explained. It wasn’t until she crossed paths with a “Holocaust denier” that she opened up about her experience. 

“She was faced with a Holocaust denier, over the phone, a young man who was just doing a report in school about the propaganda of it all,” Smith recalled. “That’s when she realized that if she didn’t start talking, history could easily repeat itself.”

From then on, her mother slowly began talking, but it was evident to Smith “how hard it was for her, especially that first time, and I stayed away from the subject.” 

“It wasn’t until I went with her to a school — I was almost 20, [and] I took her to a school so she could talk to kids — that I not only heard her story but saw the saw amazing reaction … and I thought, ‘Man, this story is powerful.’”

Gut received several recognitions for the work she did to protect Jews during the Holocaust, including being honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli Holocaust Commission. This title is given to non-Jews who risked their lives to help Jewish people during WWII. She also received a Medal of Honor in a ceremony at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, and her story is part of a permanent exhibit in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., among other recognitions.

One that particularly meant a lot to Gut was the papal blessing she received in 1995 from Pope John Paul II for her sacrifice. Smith explained that her mother had a very painful experience when she went to confession, after enduring sexual abuse and being forced to have sexual relations with the German major.

Unable to confess to her usual priest one day, Gut went to a young priest who Smith said was “more anti-Semitic and told her she didn’t have a part in the Catholic Church, which broke her heart.”

“So [there was] this papal blessing where Pope John Paul II, the Polish pope, sent a delegation from the Vatican, and we had a ceremony in a Jewish synagogue in Irvine, California,” she said. “So the mixture was amazing, and it was just coming home for her. It meant a lot.”

Nélisse pointed out that Irena Gut’s life can inspire everyone. 

“I think we as individuals think that we can’t really make a difference or that we’re too small to really have an impact, and I think that she’s the perfect example that — I mean, she obviously did heroic things — [but] by doing tiny things that seem so simple, it could be smiling to someone or helping them with a bag or complimenting them, it does have a ripple effect,” Nélisse said.

Smith added that she has heard from kids who were thinking about taking their lives by suicide, but one day someone sat with them at lunch and that changed their minds. She hopes that her mother’s story reminds people that “we are all able to do amazing things.”

“People will call my mom a hero or somebody who’s special, and she wouldn’t have liked that and I don’t either, because you label somebody that way and it gives them permission to do things that you can’t, [but] the bottom line is we are all able to do amazing things,” she said.