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January 15. 2016

Church leaders respond to Obama action on gun control -
New book on mercy reports lengthy interview with pope -
U.S. bishops protest deportations -
Declining number of baptisms

In this edition:
1. Migration's growing, "pivotal role."
2. Bishops protest deportations.
3. Current quotes to ponder:
a) Muslims in America.
b) Declining number of baptisms.
4. Deacons, icons of service.
5. The church and gun control.
6. Book on mercy interviews pope.

1. Pope on Migration's Growing, Pivotal Role

"More than ever before" migration will play "a pivotal role" in this world's future, Pope Francis predicted in the annual papal speech to diplomats accredited to the Vatican. It will be essential for nations to respond together to this development and to do so in a way that respects "human dignity and the rights of persons," he said.

He urged nations to take account of migration's cultural implications, "beginning with those linked to religious affiliation." Pope Francis cautioned that "extremism and fundamentalism find fertile soil not only in the exploitation of religion for purposes of power, but also in the vacuum of ideals and the loss of identity -- including religious identity -- which dramatically marks the so-called West."

A vacuum of this type, he said, "gives rise to the fear which leads to seeing the other as a threat and an enemy, to closed-mindedness and intransigence in defending preconceived notions."

Migrants today are fleeing "extreme poverty," Pope Francis remarked. Their hope is to be able to "feed their families or to receive medical care and education." Among the forces pushing migrants away from their homes are "hopeless squalor or the effects of climate change and extreme weather conditions," he said.

Hunger is a significant factor in migration, the pope noted. "Sadly," he said, "we know that hunger continues to be one of the gravest banes of our world, leading to the deaths of millions of children every year."

Pope Francis warned the diplomats of the risks and dangers of human trafficking. "Where regular migration is impossible, migrants are often forced to turn to human traffickers or smugglers, even though they are aware that in the course of their journey they may well lose their possessions, their dignity and even their lives," he commented.

He appealed "for an end to trafficking in persons, which turns human beings, especially the weakest and most defenseless, into commodities."

The image of the great many children who have "died at sea" as "victims of human callousness and harsh weather" now is imprinted forever "on our minds and hearts," Pope Francis said to the diplomats. He added:

"Those who survive and reach a country which accepts them bear the deep and indelible scars of these experiences, in addition to those left by the atrocities which always accompany wars and violence."

With migration playing a larger and larger role in the world, the pope pointed in his speech to the importance of putting "the person at the center of political decisions at every level, seeing humanity as one family and all people as brothers and sisters."

But the effects of a spirit of individualism today provide fertile soil for the growth of a type of "indifference toward our neighbors which leads to viewing them in purely economic terms," he stated. This leads, as well, "to a lack of concern for their humanity and ultimately to feelings of fear and cynicism."

Pope Francis asked: "Are these not the attitudes we often adopt toward the poor, the marginalized and the 'least' of society? And how many of these 'least' do we have in our societies!"

Among these people, he thinks "primarily of migrants, with their burden of hardship and suffering, as they seek daily, often in desperation, a place to live in peace and dignity."

2. Bishops Protest Deportations

Two U.S. Catholic bishops protested an effort early in January aimed at deporting migrant families and returning them to Central America as part of an effort by the Department of Homeland Security to deter others in that region from attempting to enter the United States.

"We know from our experience with serving thousands of Central American children and families in the United States that most left their families and their homelands because they felt they had no other choice," Auxiliary Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of Seattle, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration, and Bishop Kevin Vann of Orange, Calif., chairman of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said in a Jan 8 letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson.

Sending "migrant children and families back to their home countries would put many of them in grave danger because they would face threats of violence and, for some, even death," the bishops wrote.

From Jan. 2 to Jan. 4, Homeland Security officers "entered homes in immigrant communities, primarily in Georgia, Texas and North Carolina, searching for families to deport," the bishops noted in their letter. "Our organizations," the bishops said, "have firsthand knowledge that these actions have generated fear among immigrants and have made their communities more distrustful of law enforcement and vulnerable to misinformation, exploitation and fraud."

The bishops expressed "grave concern" over the actions, which resulted, they wrote, "in 121 Central Americans, primarily mothers with children, being taken into custody for impending deportation." Among other points, the bishops insisted that "there is simply no humane way to detain children."

The Homeland Security actions contrast sharply, the bishops said, "with the statements articulated by President Obama himself in November 2014, namely that his administration would pursue the deportation of 'felons, not families; criminals, not children; gang members, not a Mom who's working hard to provide for her kids.'"

Bishops Elizondo and Vann objected "to the removal of any migrants who were apprehended without first confirming that they received actual, meaningful opportunities to present their asylum claims at hearings in immigration court."

While acknowledging "the vital role that the federal government plays in ensuring orderly and coherent migration processes," the bishops disagreed "with the underlying rationale behind this action: that sending children and families back to the dangerous environment they fled will serve as a deterrent for other children and families who are considering fleeing Central America."

The bishops urged the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress "to end this practice and not engage in such future enforcement actions targeting immigrant women and children, as they terrify communities and are inconsistent with American values."

Instead, the bishops strongly encouraged the government "to better support the immigration court system by providing it with more attorneys and judges," thus ensuring that "these Central Americans are provided with due process protections that will allow them to make their most effective case for asylum and other possible forms of protection."

Actions that force people "to live in fear and terror" and that separate families "deny the dignity of the human spirit," the bishops wrote. They said, "We cannot support such actions and urge you to reject future enforcement efforts of this kind."

3. Current Quotes to Ponder

Muslims in America: "Despite the mass shootings and bombings in Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Colorado Springs, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Washington Navy Yard and many more unnamed here, we do not label all American males threats to society. We do not segregate or banish them from our families and communities. We are able to distinguish an aberrant fringe which we do not allow to define our conception of white males at large. Why would we not do this for our Muslim neighbors? If we know Muslims better, we will have portrayals rather different than what we associate with jihadists and extremists which dominate Western media and shape our perceptions. By various counts, there are about 7 million Muslims in the United States, a little over 2 percent of the population. They are part of U.S. history from the early days. . . . They contributed innovations that built America. . . . Extremism is a scourge, but let us fight this by reaching out to and encountering Muslims." (From a column for Catholic News Service by Carolyn Woo, president of Catholic Relief Services, posted on the CRS website.)

Declining Number of Baptisms: "In many parts of the world today, baptizing children has already become the exception. The number of unbaptized infants, children, young people and adults is on the rise. The decline in the practice of baptism is the result of an erosion of family ties and a departure from the church. During numerous priests' retreats, gatherings of priests and pastors, I have often heard it discussed that when the priest does not see visible signs of the practice of faith, then the church would have the right to refuse the sacraments to people, especially baptism. It is a very complex question. Could we not, however also listen anew to the Gospel missionary injunction to 'baptize, preach and teach' not by waiting for the people to come to us but by going out to meet the people where they are in today's messy world? What is demanded of us is a new missionary fervor and zeal. . . . The sacraments are for the life of men and women as they are, not as we would like them to be! I can hear St. Pope John Paul II crying out to us, 'Duc in altum!'" It is not in the shallow, familiar waters that you will find those who most need you!" (From a commentary for the Jan. 10 Feast of the Baptism of the Lord by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica, who heads the Salt and Light Catholic Media Foundation based in Toronto, Ontario. The commentary appears on Salt and Light's blog found at saltandlighttv.org.)

4. Deacons as Icons of Service

A deacon of the church "is called to a ministry of service," but this does not mean he is "called simply to carry out services," Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin said Jan. 6 when he ordained two Dominican brothers to the diaconate.

Deacons, the archbishop explained, are "called to witness to a fundamental characteristic of the very nature of the church," making clear that "Christ came to serve." This means that a deacon "must be an icon of that dimension of the life of the church."

Because "ministry and mission belong together," Archbishop Martin urged the new deacons to ask themselves continually, "What are the obstacles which can appear in my ministry to me being missionary?" The first obstacle "is for the church to become auto-referential, to become a comfort zone for the like-minded," he said.

"It is possible," he observed, "to create safe spaces for those who think alike and who may come to feel that because they are like-minded they have discovered to right way." But a minister who is also missionary "knows that the path of mission never ends and cannot be kept within the four walls of our buildings, much less within the walls of our narrow minds."

Archbishop Martin advised the new deacons always to "avoid any temptation to be trapped in power, either through being a slave to the ideas of the moment or a slave to considering ministry as a way to personal prerogative."

The first reading at the Dublin ordination Mass spoke of darkness covering the earth. These words still apply to the world, the archbishop said. But, he told the deacons, "You are not called simply to confirm darkness."

Instead, he urged them to recognize their call "to bring the light of Christ to others," serving them in a way that allows them to experience it "as a light and joy in the concrete situation of their own calling."

There is a need today, the archbishop said, "to foster the gifts of the prophets of yesteryear and of our own time who could draw out from the word of God a critical dialogue with the language and culture of their time," touching "the hearts and minds even of those who do not believe."

5. The Church and Gun Control in America

"We welcome reasonable efforts aimed at saving lives and making communities safer," Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami, who chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a statement Jan. 6, the day after President Obama announced steps to curb gun violence in America.

"For a long time now, the bishops of the United States have called for reasonable policies to help reduce gun violence," the archbishop said. "No measure can eliminate all acts of violence which involve firearms," he stated, but he stressed that the bishops "welcome reasonable efforts aimed at saving lives and making communities safer."

It was Archbishop Wenski's hope that "Congress will take up this issue in a more robust way, considering all of the varied aspects involved." He said that "in addition to reasonable regulation, conversations must include strengthening social services for persons with mental illness, while being mindful that the vast majority of those suffering with mental illness are not likely to commit violent criminal acts."

President Obama announced Jan. 5 that he would act to assure that "anybody in the business of selling firearms must get a license and conduct background checks or be subject to criminal prosecutions." Moreover, it is the president's intent, he said, "to do everything we can to ensure the smart and effective enforcement of gun safety laws that are already on the books."

Third, his administration will "do more to help those suffering from mental illness get the help that they need," the president said. Fourth, he said, "we're going to boost gun safety technology." Here he noted that "many gun injuries and deaths are the result of legal guns that were stolen or misused or discharged accidentally."

Responding to the president's announcement, Bishop Kevin Farrell of Dallas said, "Thank God that someone finally has the courage to close the loopholes in our pitiful gun control laws to reduce the number of mass shootings, suicides and killings that have become a plague in our country."

Writing in his blog on the diocesan website, Bishop Farrell said the president's "executive actions, though modest, are first steps in correcting gun laws so weak that they are ludicrous." In the bishop's view, "Congress has unabashedly sold itself to the gun lobby." He called the president's announcement "a small but important step to control sales of weapons at gun shows and over the Internet that sidestep background checks."

It is sad, the bishop added, that his state of Texas "has become the 45th state to embrace the cowboy mentality that permits the open carrying of guns." He found it difficult to see how the state's "new law allowing persons with concealed handgun licenses to openly carry firearms can accomplish anything other than cause people to feel threatened and intimidated."

Under the Texas law churches may prohibit concealed handgun license holders from carrying open or concealed weapons on church premises. "The Diocese of Dallas will prohibit the possession of any weapon in any facility owned, leased and operated by the diocese or a diocesan entity, except as specifically permitted by diocesan policy," he said.

The policy of the diocese, he added, "is rooted in the belief that our churches, schools and other places of worship are intended to be sanctuaries -- holy sites where people come to pray and participate in the ministry of the church."

Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta took similar action in 2014 when a law passed in Georgia allowed licensed individuals to carry guns into a wide variety of places. "The last thing we need is more firearms in public places, especially in those places frequented by children and the vulnerable," said the archbishop.

He pledged at that time to take action before the Georgia legislation took effect in order to "officially restrict the presence of weapons in our Catholic institutions except for those carried by the people that civic authorities have designated and trained to protect and guard us -- and those who are duly authorized law and military officials."

Archbishop Gregory said that "churches and other places of worship are intended to be sanctuaries -- holy sites where people come to pray and to worship God." He commented that while churches seldom have been "locations where violence has disrupted the otherwise peaceful atmosphere," even the occasions when this did occur are not "sufficient reasons to allow people to bring more weapons into God's house."

Georgia's legislation, he said, would make "firearms more available in places where they may allow violence to escalate."

6. New Book on Mercy Interviews the Pope

During a Jan. 12 Rome press conference for the launch of a new book titled "The Name of God Is Mercy" based on a lengthy interview with Pope Francis by the Italian journalist Andrea Tornielli, the Italian actor and comedian Roberto Benigni read excerpts of the book, while offering his own reflections on mercy.

Benigni is perhaps best known for his academy-award winning role in a 1997 film titled "Life Is Beautiful." Cindy Wooden, head of the Catholic News Service Rome bureau, reported that when Benigni received a call asking him to participate in the book launch, Benigni said he heard the words "His Holiness would like," and immediately he responded "Yes" before the sentence even was completed.

"I'd do anything -- be a Swiss Guard, drive the popemobile -- absolutely anything for this pope," Benigni said.

The actor said that mercy "is not a virtue that's seated in an easy chair. It's an active virtue, one that moves. Just look at the pope, he's never still. It moves not just the heart, but the arms, legs, heels, knees. It moves heart and soul. It's never still."

The new book, Benigni said, "raises our hearts without watering down our brains." He commented that it is possible to read portions of the book in just five minutes "while waiting for a late train."

Others participating in the press conference included Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican press office, and Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

Tornielli conducted a four-hour interview with the pope last summer. The journalist asked 40 questions on matters related to mercy. The book is being released in 86 nations.

Addressing confessors in the church, Pope Francis remarks in the book that when God's grace begins to help a person recognize his or her sin and need for forgiveness, that person "needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgment, prejudice or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out."

The pope remarks that as a confessor, even when he found himself "before a locked door," he "always tried to find a crack, just a tiny opening" in order to "pry open that door and grant forgiveness and mercy."

The pope, like others, needs mercy, Pope Francis told Tornielli. "I said it sincerely to the prisoners of Palmasola, in Bolivia, to those men and women who welcomed me so warmly. I reminded them that even St. Peter and St. Paul had been prisoners," the pope remarks in the book.

He adds, "I have a special relationship with people in prisons, deprived of their freedom. I have always been very attached to them, precisely because of my awareness of being a sinner."

Every time the pope goes "through the gates into a prison to celebrate Mass or for a visit," he explains in the book that he always thinks: "Why them and not me? I should be here. I deserve to be here. Their fall could have been mine. I do not feel superior to the people who stand before me."

In the book Pope Francis recalls an experience of mercy when he was a teenager. "I think of Father Carlos Duarte Ibarra, the confessor I met in my parish church on Sept. 21, 1953, the day the church celebrated St. Matthew, the apostle and evangelist. I was 17 years old. On confessing myself to him, I felt welcomed by the mercy of God."

Father Ibarra, the pope notes, "was originally from Corrientes but was in Buenos Aires to receive treatment for leukemia. He died the following year. I still remember how when I got home, after his funeral and burial, I felt as though I had been abandoned. And I cried a lot that night, really a lot, and hid in my room."

The reason for his grief was that he "had lost a person who helped me feel the mercy of God," Pope Francis states.