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Update: Explaining Scripture, Venezuelan priest becomes social media sensation

IMAGE: CNS photo/Manuel Rueda

By Manuel Rueda

CARACAS, Venezuela (CNS) -- Understanding the Bible can be challenging, but Catholics in Venezuela are becoming more familiar with Scripture through the work of a tech-savvy friar.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Luis Antonio Salazar is breaking with traditional ways of preaching and bringing the Gospel to thousands of cellphone users each week through an Instagram video series called "Vivir el Evangelio," or "Living the Gospel."

In the one-minute videos, the robed priest waves his arms and points his finger to the sky as he discusses key passages of the New Testament with the help of electronic music and special effects.

Father Salazar, 34, described himself as a "Catholic influencer." He started posting videos to Instagram in 2018, after a 19-year-old member of his parish convinced him it would be a good idea and offered to help with the editing and special effects.

Each video gets thousands of views and hundreds of comments. And in a year, Salazar's account -- @Flas7.0 -- has grown from 5,000 to more than 120,000 followers.

"The motive behind this is to help people understand the Gospel" said Father Salazar, who celebrates Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Chiquinquira Church, the largest church in Venezuela's capital. "I want to take those stories that happened 2,000 years ago with the pharisees, the scribes and the rest of the characters in the Bible and show people what they teach us about being good Christians."

Parishioners credit the videos and Father Salazar's energetic personality with bringing more people to the pews as Sunday Mass is now attended by hundreds of people.

But Father Salazar told Catholic News Service the videos also have helped him to connect with young Catholics in other cities and even in other Spanish-speaking countries, forming a "digital parish" to which he tries to tend daily.

"Recently a cathecist who I didn't know reached out to me asking how to teach her pupils about Moses, Abraham and the alliance of the people of Israel with God," he said.

Father Salazar said he also has been messaged by people with problems such as depression and tries to provide them with prayers and guidance.

"I am approached with sensitive issues, so I have to answer all the messages myself," he explained. "I'm not just any influencer coming up with crazy videos."

The Capuchin said the videos are part of a broader effort to make the church more present in the lives of the Venezuelan people at a time that the country continues experiencing a harrowing economic crisis.

Hyperinflation and food shortages have forced more than 4 million Venezuelans to leave the country in the past five years, according to the United Nations. Hundreds of people have been imprisoned for protesting against the ruling socialist party and street demonstrations have been met with police repression.

Friar Salazar has attended several of the anti-government protests himself, wearing his brown habit and comforting protesters who suffer from the effects of tear gas.

"I've been to other countries, like Spain or Colombia or Peru, and I know there are other ways to live. So I also head out into the street to tell the world that what is going on in Venezuela is wrong. And that we deserve something better," he said.

Father Salazar mentions that some of his superiors have asked him to not wear his robe during marches, but he maintained that doing so would betray his philosophy as a priest. "I think that it is important for the Venezuelan people to see that the church is with them," he said.

When there are no protests taking place, Friar Salazar's parish helps the local population by organizing a weekly soup kitchen that has served up to 800 people in a day. Dishes are served with proper silverware and on ceramic plates to show those going through rough times that they are worthy of a better standard of living.

Father Salazar avoids discussing politics in his homilies, but he tried to bring the Bible home to his audiences by referring to everyday situations in his Instagram videos, such as the discrimination facing Venezuelan migrants who arrive in South American countries.

In a recent video, he discussed a passage from the Gospel of Luke that talks abut how Jesus cured 10 lepers that he found on the road to Jerusalem, including a Samaritan. It turns out that the Samaritan was the only leper who returned to Jesus to thank him for the miraculous deed.

"Interesting," Father Salazar noted in the video. "Jesus cured a foreigner. That's because he doesn't suffer from xenophobia."

As the priest continues to churn out his weekly videos, the demand for them appears to be growing. Five television stations in Venezuela are showing the "Living the Gospel" series and Catholics from the U.S. and Brazil have contacted Father Salazar to ask if he can translate the vides into English and Portuguese.

Father Salazar said he will need more volunteers to help him with that.

"These videos are something that has come from the spirit," he said. "People like them because they are thirsty for the word of God."


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Nationals' Catholic chaplain calls the World Series team his parish

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chaz Muth

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Like most parish priests, Msgr. Stephen Rossetti celebrates Mass, baptizes babies, gives marriage preparation talks and provides pastoral care that often involves listening to people or praying with them.

He also frequently blesses baseball bats.

That's because the priest, a research associate professor at The Catholic University of America's School of Theology and Religious Studies, is also chaplain for the Nationals, Washington's Major League Baseball team. The Nationals are playing the Houston Astros in the World Series.

The priest spoke to Catholic News Service on campus Oct. 21, the day before the opening game of the Fall Classic -- in between meeting with someone who wanted prayers and teaching a class on pastoral counseling to seminarians -- which is his day job.

And yes, he will be attending the World Series games in Washington, no question about it.

The priest from the Diocese of Syracuse, New York, spent more than 12 years at the helm of the St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Maryland for priests and religious with addictions or psychological problems. He also has written several books about the priesthood.

But for the past 10 years, he also has been part of the Nats' family, ever since the previous chaplain told him he needed a replacement. Msgr. Rossetti had been riding his bike to catch games of the newly named Nationals (previously the Montreal Expos) when they came to the city in 2005 and played at RFK Stadium, three years before Nationals Park opened, so he jumped at the chance to be part of this ministry.

He relates to the players "as people not as stars or public figures" and sees his role as "ministering to people with their hopes and dreams, sorrow and difficulties. It's why you become a priest."

So, when team members are up at the plate, he knows where they are coming from and about their families. He roots for them, of course, thumbing his rosary beads while others wave aloft red foam fingers.

It turns out, Msgr. Rossetti also is "a big rosary fan."

"I say the rosary all the time anyway, but somehow when the game gets tight, I'm always thumbing my beads. I realize that God loves both sides and I pray for both sides, but I think that he knows that I'm rooting for the Nats," he confessed.

The spiritual analogies for this season alone aren't lost on him either.

The team's essential motto of "stay in the fight" -- describing how they were 12 games under .500 early in the season all the way up to their win in the National League Championship Series -- is all about not giving up and having hope, which Msgr. Rossetti says the players held onto when others may have given up on them.

"I gave a homily to the guys at Sunday Mass a few weeks ago and I said that the virtue of hope is so important to all of us because all of us have times in our lives when times get tough and we need to realize that God is still with us and loves us -- so don't give up hope and stay in the fight," he encouraged them.

The priest said his role with the team isn't just for the Catholics. "Many of the guys who are not Catholic very much appreciate the presence of a priest and ask you to pray for them so I'm always blessing them and blessing their bats and praying for them when they're ill. It's a nice ministry to be able to walk with them, whether they win or lose," he said.

CNS attempted to reach Msgr. Rossetti's counterpart with the Astros, but Ray McKenna, president of Catholic Athletes for Christ, said the Astros and Colorado Rockies are two U.S. baseball teams without a Catholic chaplain.

This is not Msgr. Rossetti's first rodeo as a chaplain. In 2011, he spent the month of December in Antarctica as the Catholic chaplain to the American and New Zealand communities working for the National Science Foundation.

He said today's church has changed and he is fine with bringing a church presence to where people are.

"In the old days, we would kind of wait for people to come into the church, but today a lot of people don't come to church, and part of the new evangelization is meeting people where they're at."

During baseball season, there are roughly 40,000 people in the stadium, so the priest walks around and talks with ushers, staff, reporters and fans, some ask for prayers or blessings, he added, so he sees it as a way of "bringing church to people and bringing blessing to people."

"It's a great ministry," he said, and not just during winning seasons.

A few years back, he said, things weren't going well for the team after they lost their 10th game in a row, so he thought he should go down to the locker room.

"I went down there and there was this gloom," he said, adding that one of the players who had been looking down, looked up at him and said: "Boy, do we need you."

"So, I especially try to be there when things aren't going well," he added.

But he's certainly there in good times too. He was there in the locker room Oct. 15 after the team swept the St. Louis Cardinals in four games to win the National League pennant and there was "champagne everywhere," which he tried not to be covered with.

He can't help but take in the feeling this season with the Nationals' first World Series.

"There seems to be a special spirit around the team; you feel it. It's kind of like it's their year." He said he's never seen such a "positive joyful spirit" with the players as he has this year, demonstrated by dancing in the dugout even by more reserved players.

"There is a sense of mutual respect, camaraderie and love and they just seem to be happy," he added.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim


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'We are all responsible': Bishop urges lifestyle change to protect Amazon

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Barbara J. Fraser

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Solutions to environmental problems discussed at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon must involve not just Amazonian nations, but countries in Europe and North America, bishops said.

"This is a special synod, but it has universal consequences," Bishop Karel Choennie of Paramaribo, Suriname, told reporters Oct. 22.

Many of the environmental issues that synod participants have raised -- including destruction of forests, pollution of rivers, rapacious mining and especially climate change -- are also common to other tropical regions of the world.

Those problems have roots in North America and Europe, although they often are exacerbated by policy loopholes and lack of enforcement in Amazonian countries, synod participants have said.

In their four-minute presentations during the first two weeks of the synod, participants described how mines, dams and other enterprises owned, built or operated by companies in industrialized countries displace local communities, affecting the environment and disrupting people's lives.

Global trade means that even consumers' decisions leave a footprint in distant countries. For example, most of the deforestation in Brazil is for cattle ranching to export beef. Destruction and fires in Bolivia's lowland dry forest increased after the country signed an agreement that is expected double beef exports to China.

And demand for gold keeps prices high, encouraging illegal miners to invade indigenous people's territories in remote parts of the Amazon. Their unregulated operations leave a scene that resembles a cratered moonscape, where rivers are poisoned with mercury and cyanide.

"No one can say, 'I'm not responsible, it's not my fault,'" Bishop Choennie said. "We are all responsible."

But that is a message people in industrialized countries do not always want to hear, Bishop Emmanuel Lafont of Cayenne, French Guiana, told Catholic News Service.

When he returns to France for visits, he said, he often finds it difficult to interest other people, even in the church, in problems facing indigenous people in his diocese.

"They know very little" about French Guiana, Bishop Lafont said. "They live a very comfortable life compared to the Third World, and they are not aware -- they are afraid of becoming aware -- that their wealth has been made from the colonizing process."

Except for French Guiana, the Amazonian nations won independence from the countries that colonized them, but economically they continue to depend heavily on revenues from raw materials such as minerals, oil and timber, or on industrial-scale farming and ranching.

The economic and social costs are borne by indigenous villagers and small farmers in the Amazon, said Josianne Gauthier, executive secretary of CIDSE, an international consortium of Catholic development agencies and an invited guest at the synod.

"It's colonialism -- you externalize the costs to another population that you consider inferior or of less value," she said. "It's a one-directional relationship, where you exploit and live well, while the others suffer the consequences."

People in places like North America and Europe do not always see that "environmental degradation and human rights violations (in the Amazon) are connected to our behaviors or policies or trade agreements" elsewhere in the world, she said.

That is because "they're afraid of listening from the point of view of the other," Bishop Lafont said.

In South Africa, where he served as a missionary for 13 years, "there is a proverb that says when lions (tell) the stories, the history of the hunt will be different," he said.

People begin to understand the impact of their consumer choices and the policies of their countries when they come face to face with the people who are affected, he said.

Synod participants who have never seen the Amazon have told Bishop Lafont that they would like to visit his diocese. Gauthier's organization takes people from countries like those in the Amazon to talk with policymakers in places like Europe and North America.

Ultimately, however, the Gospel, Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si'" and the synod all are calling for a profound conversion, synod participants said.

"Europe wants the Amazonian people to keep their forest (standing), but they don't want to change their lifestyle. That's a big contradiction," Bishop Choennie said.

"This economy kills," he added. "This economy is unjust for the next generation," which will inherit the consequences of global warming and other environmental problems.

The call to an ecological conversion will reverberate after the synod officially ends Oct. 27, participants said.

"It can't stop here," Gauthier said. "We have to take it into our territories. There has to be solidarity for what's going on in the Amazon, and the messages have to change."

Bishop Lafont said Catholics "have to take 'Laudato Si' more seriously. We have to promote a change in the way of living. Concretely. That will be my message."

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Everyday Heroes: Knight and ex-MLB pitcher now running with Grace

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Knights of Columbus

By Andrew Fowler

Trever Miller was born to be a pitcher.

The Kentucky native loved the challenge baseball presented. The struggle between two men. One with a ball. The other 60 feet 6 inches away, holding a bat. Over a 21-year career in professional baseball, he found that the glory that came with success -- such as helping the Tampa Bay Rays to their first playoff victory -- was intoxicating.

But Miller, 46, was also born to achieve greater things than winning a baseball game.

Grace Miller, his third child, was born before the 2005 Major League season with two holes in her heart and a genetic disorder so rare that it doesn't have a name. Only 20 cases have been recorded since 1980 and children born with the condition often don't live past a year. She also has a diagnosis of cerebral palsy.

It was hard and demanding to meet Grace's complex medical needs. Miller and his wife, Pari, became exhausted and grew distant.

At the stadium, he lost his focus. After one particularly bad outing, Miller came home, grabbed a few beers and sat outside in a rainstorm.

"I had just had it," Miller recalled. "I was angry at God, angry at the whole situation. ... My kids saw this, and they got scared. My wife [said], 'What are you doing? Get inside.'"

Miller did go inside, and slept, unaware of what the next morning would bring.

He woke to a voice with a simple message: "Run. Just run."

It started with some old running shoes and a mile. But then one mile turned into two. Two turned into three. Four into seven. Running long distances became the pitcher's new hobby, even running at every ballpark when his team traveled. Miller ran so much, he competed in the Disney Marathon in January 2009 -- the same month he joined the Knights of Columbus -- dedicating his run to Grace.

"I couldn't wrestle with her, I couldn't get on the floor and hang out, couldn't give her a big hug all the time," he said. "It's hard to hug her when she's laying in a bed, and just do all the stuff that dads need to do with their kids to bond."

Miller bought a stroller suitable for running with Grace and decided to enter in the local Turkey Trot road race in Clearwater, Florida. They went for miles -- him running, her in the stroller.

"My wife, she was bawling up tears of joy, just happy that we could do something together and bond," Miller said. "From that, we started doing more and more races together."

That was the beginning of his collaboration with Ainsley's Angels -- road races dedicated to raising money and awareness for people with intellectual and/or physical disabilities. He and Grace have participated in 15 races.

"Crossing a finish line of a half marathon with Gracie has the same feeling as finishing a long, grueling, but rewarding and exciting baseball season," Miller said.

Miller's work for Ainsley's Angels, buoyed by his faith and his membership in the Knights of Columbus, is what makes him an Everyday Hero and part of a film series produced by the Catholic fraternal organization. The series highlights Knights who use their faith to do extraordinary things.

A normal day for the Millers begins at 5 a.m. After relieving the night nurse of her duties, they tend to Grace. They suction a trach tube, conduct breathing treatments, change her diaper, put on her ankle-foot orthosis brace and then do physical therapy. And that's the morning.

"It is seven days a week, 365 days a year," Miller said. "It's a grind, but we're happy to do it and we make the best of what God's given us. We're blessed."

Doctors estimated Grace wouldn't live more than a year. She is now 15.

"Every day that she lives is a testament to not going through with terminating someone's life," Miller said.

Grace has had more than 50 surgeries and hundreds of ultrasounds, X-rays and more. She's had to be resuscitated at least four times. But, despite those difficult moments, Grace displays a contagious smile and sometimes a laugh.

"The first time we ever heard her laugh was after we had to revive her, giving full-blown CPR," Pari Miller said. "We had never heard her laugh and so you learn to appreciate just simple things."

What has kept the Millers grounded since Grace was born has been their Catholic faith. It was solidified when Trever joined the Knights of Columbus in January 2009. Miller's father also is a Knight. And his son, Tyler, joined in 2014.

"They're just regular, good men," he said of the Knights. "They want to help, want to be charitable and want to leave the world a better place than they found it."

It has been nearly 15 years since Miller sat out in that rainstorm, struggling to understand God's mission.

But he says nothing compares to the moment when he heard that voice and began lacing up his running shoes, strapping Grace in the stroller and competing in road races for charity. Running with Grace over the miles and miles of road brought him back from the brink, and it helped him mature as a man and in his faith.

"She's taught me and a lot of people the definition of what grace is," Miller said. "She's always happy, always spreading joy and love. She looks like Jesus to me."

That's why Grace is his hero. And that's what makes Miller an everyday hero.

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Editor's Note: A video accompanying this story can be found at To share your story of an everyday hero with the Knights of Columbus contact [email protected]

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Cardinal talks about listening at the synod, being loyal to the pope

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna said that as a European member of the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, his first task is to listen and his second task is to examine ways his lifestyle and that of his community contribute to the suffering of the Amazonian people.

"I am here to listen because I've never been in the Amazon," the cardinal told reporters Oct. 21 at a synod news briefing. "That's why I am happy the Holy Father called this special, regional synod" with all the area's bishops and representatives of the region's priests, religious and laity "first of all, I think, to give a voice to this region, which is so important for the world."

As a European, he said, "I don't think it is up to us to administer" the church in the Amazon, "but to ask, 'What is our contribution to the danger facing the Amazon?'" As an example, he pointed to his cellphone, noting that the coltan in it probably was mined in Congo or in the Amazon and likely damaged the environment.

"Giving a voice to the people who live there and are threatened, this is the specific accent of Pope Francis: giving a voice to the poor and those forgotten by political leaders," he said. "And that is evangelical; it's the Gospel."

One experience the cardinal said he wanted to share with Catholics in the Amazon, who face a tremendous shortage of priests, is the Archdiocese of Vienna's experience with permanent deacons.

The archdiocese has 180 permanent deacons, almost all of whom are married, he said. They serve in parishes, church charitable agencies, hospitals, prisons and jails, and "could really help with pastoral work in the Amazon."

Cardinal Schonborn also was asked why he thought "so much negativity is directed to Pope Francis."

"I am old enough to have memories about the pontificate of St. Paul VI, and the critiques that he received are very similar to those that Pope Francis receives," he said. "For one side, he was the destructor of the church; for the other, he was the impediment of progress in the church."

For the people in the middle, though, "he was simply the pope and that's my simple, basic, Catholic attitude," the cardinal said. "He is the pope."

Cardinal Schonborn said he had "good, close relations" with St. John Paul II, and "I was a student of Pope Benedict when he was a professor and I had a chance to work with him in many circumstances, mainly on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and I have never seen the slightest, the slightest opposition" from the retired pope about Pope Francis.

"They are different because every pope has his own story and his own character, but he's always the pope," the cardinal said. "Therefore, it is very clear for me to be loyal to the pope, full stop."

"To be pope is to be criticized," Cardinal Schonborn said. "And loved by so many people around the world, admired and prayed for."

Every Sunday, 1.7 billion Catholics around the world pray at Mass "for this pope. We will do so for the next pope."


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Judgment Day: New book claims Vatican close to financial ruin

IMAGE: CNS photo/Chiarelettere

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An Italian author who was once tried and acquitted by a Vatican court for publishing leaked documents is claiming in a new book that decades of mismanagement, shady deals and decreasing donations will leave the Vatican no choice but to default.

Titled "Giudizio Universale" ("Universal Judgment"), the book by Gianluigi Nuzzi includes 3,000 pages of confidential documents he claims to have collected since 2013.

In the book's first chapter, Nuzzi recounts a May 2018 meeting of members of the Secretariat for the Economy in which they are told that "the recurring and structural deficit has reached worrying levels and risks leading to default in the absence of urgent action."

Without radical change, Nuzzi claims, the Vatican will be in default by 2023 and, as a result, Vatican employees will lose their pensions.

Presenting his book Oct. 21, Nuzzi said it is not an attack on the Catholic Church but is against the institutional corruption that has continuously impeded Pope Francis from enacting meaningful financial reforms within the world's smallest state.

The book claims the Vatican's financial woes are due in part to the mismanagement of its investment portfolio and its real estate holdings by the Administration of the Patrimony of the Holy See, known by its Italian acronym APSA.

Nuzzi said that documents he obtained prove that of the nearly 3,000 properties owned by APSA, 800 buildings are empty while some others are rented free of charge. The mismanagement of property, he added, resulted in a loss of 22.6 million euros (US$25.1 million) in 2018.

However, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, president of APSA, dismissed Nuzzi's claims, saying that while they make for a good book launch, the accusations are hardly an accurate description of "an articulated and complex reality like the church."

In an interview Oct. 22 with Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference, Bishop Galantino said the allegations of mismanagement and claims that the Vatican is on the brink of financial collapse are "not true."

"The current (financial) situation of the Holy See is no different than that of any family or even states in different continents," he said. "At a certain point, one must look at what is spent, what is brought in and try to rebalance the expenses."

Whether in surplus or deficit, he added, APSA's balance sheet "is not the result of stealing, cunning and misguided management."

"The supervisory instruments put in place by Pope Benedict XVI and strengthened by Pope Francis are making it possible to put in order the management of this patrimony to balance expenditures and income and, where necessary, to correct practices with respect to the responsibilities of the administrative bodies of the Holy See," he said.

The book also states that due to the sexual abuse crisis, donations sent to the Vatican have dropped to 51 million euros (US$56.9 million), compared to 101 million euros (US$112.7 million) in 2006.

The Vatican has two special sources of income to which Catholics contribute: the Peter's Pence collection, which is used by the pope for charity and emergency assistance; and the contributions dioceses around the world make to support the work of the Vatican.

Nuzzi claims in his book that an estimated 58% of the donations to the Peter's Pence collection were used "not for works of charity, but to fill in the (financial) gaps of the (Roman) Curia."

He had made similar claims in his book, "Merchants in the Temple," published in December 2015. A few weeks later, Cardinal Angelo Becciu, who was then an official of the Vatican Secretariat of State, responded, saying that if the Vatican were to earmark, for example, 60% of the funds to charity "we would have to immediately fire 400 people" out of the current 4,000 Vatican employees.

The Vatican amended its laws to making leaking "news and documents" a crime in the wake of the first so-called "VatiLeaks" trial in 2012 when Pope Benedict XVI's butler was charged with "aggravated theft" for giving Vatican documents and papal correspondence to Nuzzi.

Publication of two books focused on financial irregularities -- Nuzzi's "Merchants in the Temple" and Emiliano Fittipaldi's "Avarice" -- led to both writers being charged by a Vatican court of "soliciting and exercising pressure" on a Vatican employee in order to obtain confidential documents.

However, citing freedom of the press, the court acquitted both journalists in July 2016.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]

Update: Thieves steal statues used at synod prayer, throw them in the river

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

ROME (CNS) -- Two men entered a Catholic Church near the Vatican early Oct. 21 and stole copies of a statue of a pregnant woman that had been a centerpiece of several prayer services connected to the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon.

In a video shared with bloggers and Catholic news outlets that have complained about the statue being a pagan symbol, the two men set the statues on the railing of a bridge over the Tiber River and knocked them in, watching them float away.

The statues of a kneeling pregnant woman "represented life, fertility, Mother Earth," Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication, told reporters Oct. 21.

Stealing the statues and throwing them in the river, he said, "is a gesture that contradicts the spirit of dialogue."

"I don't know what else to say except that it was a theft and perhaps that speaks for itself," Ruffini said. Police are investigating the theft.

The statues had been kept in several side chapels at the Church of St. Mary in Traspontina, where prayer services connected to the synod have been held daily since the gathering began in early October.

The statue was present Oct. 4 when Pope Francis planted a tree in the Vatican Gardens and entrusted the synod to St. Francis of Assisi. It was used again Oct. 7 during a prayer and procession from the Basilica of St. Peter to the Vatican synod hall and early Oct. 19 as synod members and supports prayed the Stations of the Cross on the main street leading to St. Peter's Square.

The video of the theft and news about it spread quickly on Twitter. Taylor Marshall, author of the book "Infiltration: The Plot to Destroy the Church from Within" and a frequent critic of the use of the statue, told Twitter followers "with great joy" that the images had been tossed into the river "as an act of obedience to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ & in reparation to his Sacred Heart wounded by sin."

Others, however, expressed disgust at the theft and destruction of statues.

Catholic author Dawn Eden Goldstein tweeted, "A sick crime. The statue was in the church to represent life given us by God. Catholic churches are full of allegorical images -- pelicans, eagles, fish, human representations of virtues. Yet when Amazonian Catholics designate an image to represent their faith, they are 'pagan.'"

The theft of the statues was denounced by "Amazonia: Casa Comune," the umbrella organization of groups that placed the statues in the church and planned prayer, exhibits and conferences around the synod and its key themes.

More than 30 Catholic organizations from Europe, North America and South America designed the prayer services and events to highlight efforts to promote "integral ecology" -- the protection of people and of the earth -- and share the reality of the lives of the indigenous people of the Amazon, the group said in a statement published after the theft.

"We are deeply saddened, and, at the same time, we denounce that in the past few days we have been the victims of acts of violence that reflect religious intolerance, racism (and) disturbing attitudes aimed primarily against indigenous people," the group said. The actions and attitudes show "a refusal to construct new paths for the renewal of our church."

However, the statement said, "these acts may be repeated or become more serious."


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From sidewalk weeds to Amazon waterways, the wonders of creation abound

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey

By Barbara J. Fraser

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The forests, rivers and swamps of the Amazon basin do many things. They lock away carbon and methane, two key greenhouse gases. They produce half of the rain that falls over the region. They are a source of timber, fruit and medicines.

But amid the forest of statistics -- tons of carbon dioxide, inches of rainfall, export value of acai palm fruit pulp -- people risk losing sight of the wonder St. Francis of Assisi felt when contemplating his brothers, wind and air, and his sisters, water and Mother Earth.

Many people have "a very disconnected view of creation and of humanity right now," said Josianne Gauthier, secretary-general of CIDSE, a consortium of Catholic development agencies.

"We have detached emotion and faith and wonder and awe and recognizing the divine in all that surrounds us, and we've boxed everything into neat categories," Gauthier, a special guest at the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon, told Catholic News Service.

Since the synod opened Oct. 6 participants, especially indigenous observers, have spoken of their deep bond with the earth. But where can Catholics turn to recover that sense of connection with all of creation, especially amid the concrete and traffic of cities far from the Amazon?

For Marie Dennis, it's a single dogwood tree that she visits through the seasons in Washington, D.C., where she lives.

"I wait for it to flower in the spring and turn to this gorgeous red color in the fall," said Dennis, former co-president of Pax Christi, who lives in the Franciscan-inspired Assisi Community in the capital.

"It is so easy for us to be completely alienated from the rest of the natural world" and just see it as resources to be used, she told CNS.

Look carefully, though, and connections with nature are visible almost everywhere, even where urban pavement seems to have steamrolled over the natural world.

"It's the food we eat, or it's the weed that pushes up through the crack in the sidewalk, or it's the one tree on the block that manages to survive and to grow every year and to produce beautiful leaves," Dennis said. "Or it's the sun, or it's the rain."

Water is the great shaper of life in the Amazon basin, where rivers overflow their banks during the annual flood season, fertilizing the forest and filling the lakes with fish. It also connects all humans with the Amazon and with one another, Gauthier said.

"There has been no new source of water on this earth, ever," she added. "It's the same water that's running through the earth and traveling, going up into the clouds and back again, and it's been traveling through our bloodstreams and through our systems forever."

That makes it more difficult to "deny the connection between ourselves and the water that we're consuming," she said. "If you recognize that you have value, then you have to recognize that the other elements of creation have value and have a right to be protected."

Water flows through Pope Francis' encyclical "Laudato Si'" and has been a theme at the synod. Indigenous participants carried a dugout canoe -- the most basic form of transportation for peoples of the Amazon -- in a procession to the synod hall during the opening prayer Oct. 7.

But water not only keeps people and ecosystems alive, it also links the past and the present, said Christiana Zenner, a theology professor at Fordham University in New York City.

When she encounters a river, she says, "I look at the way it plays, and how its force runs." She also thinks about the things it has absorbed -nutrients for the forest, contaminants dumped by humans and the memory of peoples who live along its banks.

The synod also has highlighted the ways in which closeness to water, and to the earth, forges a common bond among indigenous people -- a relationship that synod participants have emphasized repeatedly.

Although all people once shared that bond, the concept of progress embraced by industrialized countries has distanced many people from their ancient roots, Dennis said.

Pope Francis acknowledged that during his trip to Peru in January 2018 when he told Amazonian indigenous people that the church wanted to listen to them. From that encounter flowed the synod, where indigenous people from the nine Amazonian countries are participating as observers.

For Dennis, that is a sign of a new beginning, like the dogwood in spring.

"We have an opportunity now," she said, "to sit at the feet of so many indigenous communities who (historically) have had those relationships with water and earth and trees and sky that we lost along the way" and learn from them.


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Mission is to make disciples for Christ, not for one's group, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Every Christian is called to be a missionary, sharing the good news of salvation in Christ and making disciples for him, not for oneself or one's clique of like-minded believers, Pope Francis said.

"What instructions does the Lord give us for going forth to others? Only one, and it's very simple: Make disciples. But, be careful: his disciples, not our own," the pope said Oct. 20 as he celebrated World Mission Sunday.

Dozens of participants from the Synod of Bishops for the Amazon joined the pope for the Mass in St. Peter's Basilica; many indigenous wore their native headdresses, had their faces painted or dressed in traditional clothes.

Before reciting the Angelus prayer after Mass, Pope Francis recalled the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV's apostolic letter on mission, "Maximum Illud." The letter, Pope Francis said, was motivated by his predecessor's conviction of "the need to evangelically relaunch the church's mission in the world so that it would be purified of any colonial incrustation and freed from the influences of the expansionist policies of European nations."

Today, he said, the letter calls Catholics "to overcome the temptation of every self-referential closure and every form of pastoral pessimism in order to open us to the joyful newness of the Gospel."

At a time when globalization seems more about "homogenization" and power struggles that breed conflict and "ruin the planet" rather than solidarity and respect for differences, Pope Francis said, Christians must be missionary disciples who share the Gospel with humility and respect.

The pope asked Catholics to commit themselves to a new effort to proclaim "the good news that in Jesus mercy defeats sin, hope defeats fear, brotherhood defeats hostility."

"Christ is our peace," the pope said, "and in him every division is overcome; in him alone there is salvation for every person and all people."

In his homily at the Mass, Pope Francis said Christians are called to share God's love and mercy with all people. "All, because no one is excluded from his heart, from his salvation. All, so that our heart can go beyond human boundaries and particularism based on a self-centeredness that displeases God. All, because everyone is a precious treasure, and the meaning of life is found only in giving this treasure to others."

"Those who bear witness to Jesus go out to all, not just to their own acquaintances or their little group," he said.

The call to be a missionary is a call that is included in every Christian's baptism, the pope said, telling people at the Mass: "Jesus is also saying to you: 'Go, don't miss a chance to bear me witness!' My brother, my sister, the Lord expects from you a testimony that no one can give in your place."

The first and most important way to share the Gospel with others is by living it, he said. "A credible proclamation is not made with beautiful words, but by an exemplary life: a life of service that is capable of rejecting all those material things that shrink the heart and make people indifferent and inward-looking; a life that renounces the useless things that entangle the heart in order to find time for God and others."

Being a missionary disciple, he said, does not mean "conquering, mandating, proselytizing," but rather "witnessing, humbling oneself alongside other disciples and offering with love the love that we ourselves received."

"Our mission," he said, is "to give pure and fresh air to those immersed in the pollution of our world; to bring to earth that peace which fills us with joy whenever we meet Jesus on the mountain in prayer; to show by our lives, and perhaps even by our words, that God loves everyone and never tires of anyone."


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Catholic school students in Bahamas show resiliency after Dorian

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tom Tracy

By Tom Tracy

FREEPORT, Grand Bahama (CNS) -- While many public schools in Grand Bahama remain closed some five weeks after Hurricane Dorian's landfall, Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Academy is back in session with a new daily schedule and newly refurbished spaces.

Principal Joye Ritchie-Greene said her school opened first, followed by other private schools and some public schools in the area. The academy also picked up a few students who transferred from local public schools along with at least two students who transferred from a Catholic school in Abaco that was demolished by the September hurricane.

Although it suffered storm-surge flooding damage, Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Academy was able to get a jump on post-Dorian renovations with restored electrical power Sept. 23 based on a provisional agreement with the electric company, allowing water-damage repairs to begin immediately, the principal said.

The academy's high school resumed classes Sept. 17, with earlier starting and ending times and the primary grades returned the following week.

Ritchie-Greene pointed out that hurricane preparedness and lockdown plans are a part of life in the Bahamas, but there also has been a bit of a learning curve in the aftermath of such a powerful storm.

To accommodate the many challenges students and their families are facing right now, the school adjusted its schedule to begin and end a little earlier each day and teachers have said the students are more productive with the changes.

"The shift in our schedule was originally to accommodate children who didn't have electricity at home, who didn't have running water, who were still living with family members and needed extra time to do personal things -- but we realized that they were more attentive at school," the principal said.

And while there were no hurricane-related fatalities among the faculty or student body, many have relatives or close friends who experienced these tragedies.

At least three faculty members and about seven or eight student families reported total loss of their homes and personal possessions. Several have taken some time off, and many took short trips off the island to regroup.

"In terms of the social-emotional aspect, we had counselors and psychologists on campus the first two days and we have had counselors speak at our general parent-teacher association meeting last week sharing with parents coping skills for themselves as well as for the children," Ritchie-Greene told the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami Archdiocese.

In addition, three primary teachers attended special training sessions for trauma and have been incorporating what they learned in their music and art classes. When the students came back, they were also greeted by a stack of pen-pal letters from students at St. Cecilia's School in Dallas.

"What we have found is that the children have been very resilient, sharing and talking," Ritchie-Greene said. "We thought it would have taken longer for them to settle in."

However, she added, soon after the school reopened, "it was as though the storm had not happened: Geography was being taught, history was being taught, physics was being taught -- teaching and learning was going on and so I was pleased with that sense of normalcy."

Ritchie-Greene said the schools in the Bahamas have clear hurricane guidelines and staff teams making sure everything is in place.

"You need to have a plan, you need to have members of the team knowing what is expected of them, but once the storm has happened, it also helps if you have persons above you who also know how to manage and act quickly," she added.

The aftermath of a hurricane forces you to put your life in perspective, Ritchie-Greene said, adding: "It really causes us to pause and think about what is most important and there is a somberness to people's moods (now) and people's emotions are raw. We need to be sensitive to that."

Put another way, she said: "I recognize that how I respond to what a parent is saying to me is so important because I recognize that we are just out of a very traumatic experience and people aren't thinking rationally."

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Tracy writes for the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.


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