02 January 2020, The Tablet

News Briefing: Church in the World

News Briefing: Church in the World

Pope Francis celebrates Mass on new year's day 2020 in the Solemnity of Most Holy Mary at St. Peter's Basilica.
Alessia Giuliani/IPA MilestoneMedia/PA Images

The Vatican is considering taking part in the Paris Olympics in 2024, the Vatican official for sport, Mgr Melchor Sanchez de Toca, has told a French sports website, (writes Tom Heneghan). The Holy See has created Athletica Vaticana, its first sports federation, this year and football, taekwondo and cricket are also played there. “With five or six of these sporting groups, we could form a national Olympic committee. And be able to join the parade, one day, at the Olympic Games. We don't want to compete for medals. Our Olympic committee would be above all symbolic. But it would show that the Olympic values can be shared by Christians," he told Francs Jeux.

A radical integralist organisation claiming links to Brazilian Integralism has claimed a Christmas Eve attack on the offices of the Porta dos Fundos comedy group, in Brazil (writes Filipe Avillez). Brazilian Integralism, flourished in the 1930s and supported a revival of spirituality in Brazil that combined with Brazilian nationalism and denounced materialism, liberalism and Marxism. Porta dos Fundos produced a Christmas Special for Netflix which sparked protests and legal challenges due to its depiction of Jesus as gay and suggestions of jealousy between God and St Joseph. The offices of the comedy group, which is popular in Brazil and in Portugal, were firebombed on 24 December, causing some damage to the building. Two days later the attack was claimed by a group calling itself “Popular Nationalist Insurgency Command, of the Brazilian Integralist Family”. Two men in masks posed in the video, flanking a third who read a manifesto, accusing the comedians of being at the service of cultural Marxism and trying to undermine the Christian values of Brazil. “Porta dos Fundos levelled a direct attack against the faith of the Brazilian people, from the cover of freedom of expression. Those damned servants of Big Capital blasphemed against the Holy Spirit”. Existing integralist groups have denied any links to the organisation. A year ago the “Popular Nationalist Insurgency Command” claimed responsibility for removing and burning some anti-fascist banners from a University in Rio de Janeiro. Police are investigating this latest attack.  

The former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Cardinal Gerhard Müller, has sharply criticised a group of German bishops for agreeing that hetero- and homosexual orientation belonged to the normal form of a person’s sexual disposition and that people’s sexual preferences were formed during puberty when they took on an unalterable hetero- or homosexual form (writes Christa Pongratz-Lippitt). The bishops had voiced these opinions at an experts’ consultation on how to discuss human sexuality in both scientific and theological terms in Berlin in the first week of December. It would have been “normal” for the bishops to keep the promise they made when they were ordained, Müller told Die Tagespost. Sexual morality was a consequence of what had been revealed in Creation and in the history of Salvation, he pointed out. The bishops concerned seemed not to have noticed that the times had changed, he said, as those “ who simply assert the natural truth that God created human beings as men and women are today condemned as preachers of hatred, homophobes and pharisees.”

Switzerland's Catholic bishops have confirmed that priests cannot be present during euthanasia and assisted suicide deaths, despite rising demand from patients for pastoral help (writes Jonathan Luxmoore). "Assisted suicide represents a serious attack on the preservation of the human person's life, which must be protected from conception to natural death", the Freiburg-based Bishops’ Conference said. "The general orientation, requiring utmost discernment, would suggest accompanying people who have decided to commit suicide as much as possible - but this accompaniment of the suffering person must not extend to being physically present in the room when lethal drugs are given". The instruction, contained in a 30-page document on pastoral care, said euthanasia was seen by a growing number of people as an "acceptable solution" to those facing "suffering and death", but was considered "radically against the Gospel message" by the Catholic Church. It added that terminally ill patients seeking to end their lives often requested "a priest or lay pastoral worker in their final moments", raising issues for "Church teaching and simple human compassion". "However, physical withdrawal is necessary to make clear the Church always defends life and cannot be seen to be offering assistance or cooperation to the euthanasia patient", the document continued. "Helplessly witnessing an assisted suicide can leave psychological scars on observers that last for years". In a November survey by Statistics Netherlands, over 91 percent of Dutch Catholics said they believed euthanasia should be allowed under certain circumstances, including severe mental disorder, advanced dementia, terminal illness and "tiredness with life". Opposition to all forms of euthanasia was highest among Dutch Muslims.   

 Boko Haram’s Islamist terrorists killed seven people on Christmas Eve in a Christian village near the town of Chibok in northeast Nigeria's Borno state. Dozens of Islamists driving trucks and motorcycles stormed into Kwarangulum, shooting fleeing residents and burning homes after looting food supplies. Kwarangulum lies 10 miles from Chibok, the scene of the mass kidnap of 276 schoolgirls in 2014 by Boko Haram. Troops have been stationed in Chibok since the kidnap. On 26 December the Islamist group released a one-minute video claiming to show the execution – mainly by beheading - of 11 Christian men in Northern Nigeria.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay and president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said in a statement on 27 December that "religion should never be the criterion for citizenship of a country. Nor is violence a solution when there is a difference of opinion." Since 9 December, violent protests have erupted across India against a new law, the Citizenship Amendment Act, which allows non-Muslim minorities from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan who settled in India prior to 2015 to obtain Indian citizenship.

The Legion of Christ order in Mexico released a report on 21 December identifying 33 priests and 71 seminarians accused of sexually abusing minors since the order’s founding. The report documents that in the Legion’s 78-year history, they found evidence of 175 minors who were victims of abuse. The deceased founder of the order, Marcial Maciel, committed 60 of these crimes. Rogelio Cabrera López, the Archbishop of Monterrey and the bishops’ conference president, said that the report does not examine how the Legion of Christ allowed the abuse to continue.

On Friday night into the morning of Saturday 21 December, 18 people were killed in a fight at a Honduran prison in the coastal city of Tela. Then on Sunday 22 December, at least 16 inmates were killed at the El Porvenir prison, east of the capital Tegucigalpa. The MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs are known to control the prisons. Several high-profile murders also took place in recent months, connected to the drug trafficking trial against Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, who was found guilty on 18 October of cocaine trafficking and faces a possible life sentence. A key witness, Nery López Sanabria, was killed in the country’s maximum-security prison in October after the trial ended. Then on 13 December, the prison’s director Pedro Ildefonso Armas was murdered by a gang of gunmen on motorcycles. In a Mass on 22 December Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, one of the Pope’s top advisers, called for a truce during the Christmas holiday. 

Three days before Christmas, Israel began granting permits to Palestinian Christians in Gaza to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem and Jerusalem reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits. By Christmas Eve, Israel had issued 193 authorisations to travel, according to the Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza. Around 1,000 Christians reside in Gaza. Meanwhile, artist Banksy’s alternative nativity scene “Scar of Bethlehem” has been on display at the artist's hotel in Bethlehem. It shows Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus in front of a towering concrete wall scarred by a bullet hole, in the shape of a star.  

The Christmas season was celebrated in Pripyat, Ukraine, for the first time since the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986 as former residents returned to put up a Christmas tree in the central square. The event was organised by tour operators that specialise in tours of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, which was visited by 90,000 tourists in 2019 for whom a “green corridor” is provided. The city is located less than two miles from the former Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant and was once home to nearly 50,000 residents.

Several dozen Catholics met outside Melbourne prison on Christmas Eve, to sing carols and pray for Cardinal George Pell, who remains incarcerated while waiting for Australia’s top court to hear the appeal of his conviction on abuse charges. Catholics also acknowledged that Christmas this year was celebrated in the shadow of terrible bushfires. “There is an air of uncertainty and anxiety as we move to the end of the year,” said Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane. Victims of the bushfires and firefighters were remembered at Christmas Masses nationally.

Pope Francis said public prayers last week for the victims of Typhoon Phanfone, known locally as Ursula, that left at least 28 people dead and thousands homeless in the central Philippines on Christmas Day. Terrorist violence bloodied the Southern Philippines on 22 December when a bomb exploded outside Cotabato Cathedral, on Mindanao in the southern Philippines while Mass was going on inside. At least 22 people were injured, including 12 soldiers providing security over Christmas.

"Christmas is an opportunity to strengthen hope", given “the critical situation that worsens every day in Venezuela" according to Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, Archbishop Emeritus of Caracas. "Those who suffer the most are the poorest!" he said. Cardinal Urosa described the Socialist Government’s efforts to resolve the situation as "something incredible … an oil country suffers from a shortage of petrol and domestic gas: it is something embarrassing and unheard of!" 

In his Christmas message, Hong Kong’s Apostolic administrator called for mutual trust to be rebuilt between government, police and people. Cardinal John Tong urged "everyone to stop the violence" shaking Hong Kong. For several months the territory has been caught up in mass protests against attempts by the Communist Government in Beijing to impose more direct rule.

Bishop Daniel Conlin of Joliet, Illinois announced he was taking a leave of absence from his episcopal duties for medical reasons. Conlin has been experiencing transient ischemic attacks, or minor strokes, in recent weeks. Bishop Richard Pates, emeritus bishop of Des Moines, Iowa, will serve as administrator of the Joliet diocese during Conlin’s leave of absence.

Asked in an interview in the German illustrated weekly Der Stern what he did when a homosexual couple asked him to bless them, German bishops’ conference president Cardinal Reinhard Marx replied, “I can bless them by way of a pastoral accompaniment and we can pray together, but I cannot bless a relationship which resembles a marriage” as the Sacrament of Marriage was based on the faithful relationship between a man and a woman and was open to children.

Pope Francis on 27 December appointed Spanish Capuchin Franciscan, Celestino Aos Braco, as Archbishop of Santiago. To date, he had been Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese. He also appointed Mgr Fernando Ramos Perez, former Auxiliary Bishop of Santiago, as Archbishop of Puerto Montt.

There was no Christmas Midnight Mass in Notre Dame, France this year for the first time since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Ceremonies have been moved to Saint Germain l’Auxerrois church next to the Louvre Museum but Paris Archbishop Michel Aupetit celebrated Mass in a circus tent in the Bois de Boulogne where the circus company regularly ends its 24 December show with a vigil Mass.

In a “correction” sent to the German monthly Herder Korrespondenz, the Pope Emeritus rejected as “absolutely false” the insinuation in an article by theologian Michael Böhnke that Benedict had called into question the foundations of Jewish-Christian dialogue. In his correction Benedict XVI affirmed that Christians are called to a “dialogue” with the Jews, rather than a “mission.” In the September issue of the journal, Böhnke had commented disapprovingly on statements made by Benedict concerning the relationship between Jews and Christians. Judaism and Christianity, said Benedict, are “two ways of interpreting the Scriptures.” For Christians, the promises made to Israel are the hope of the Church, and “those who abide by it are in no way questioning the foundations of the Jewish-Christian dialogue.” The accusation contained in the article, he continued, is “grotesque nonsense and has nothing to do with what I said about it. I therefore reject his article as a completely false insinuation.” Böhnke had argued that Benedict XVI, in an article for the theological journal Communio, had demonstrated a problematic understanding of Judaism, and had ignored the suffering Christians had inflicted upon Jews. In his “correction,” Benedict affirmed, “the missionary mandate is universal – with one exception: a mission to the Jews was not foreseen and not necessary because they alone, among all peoples, knew the ‘unknown God’.” For Israel, then, it was not a mission, but a dialogue about whether Jesus of Nazareth was “the Son of God, the Logos,” for whom, according to the promises made to His people, Israel, and the whole world without knowing it, was waiting. Taking up this dialogue anew, Benedict said, is “the duty given us at this time”.

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