01 January 2024, The Tablet

News Briefing: Church in the World

News Briefing: Church in the World

Supporters of the DR Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi at a rally ahead of elections on 20 December 2023, in which he claimed victory. Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo called the vote “a gigantic, organised mess”.
Associated Press / Alamy

The eight-months conflict in Sudan has led to “a convergence of a worsening humanitarian calamity and a catastrophic human rights crisis”, according to the UN’s Human Rights Office. The region of Darfur has been particularly badly affected, with around 4,000 people killed in ethnic violence and nine million needing humanitarian assistance. 

The Catholic bishops of Sudan and South Sudan appealed to the international community “not to sit back” in its efforts to end the conflict. Members of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a statement on 26 December urging the US, British and Troika government to recognise their “responsibility of working towards addressing the crisis and providing the necessary support to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in the Sudan”.

“The conflict is causing massive destruction of human lives, property and livelihoods to the surprise of many, who never expected such an unfortunate situation to unfold in Sudan.”

The Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns in Washington has urged members to lobby President Joe Biden to demand investigation into the killings, saying the US should support the international community’s efforts to investigate war crimes through the International Criminal Court and the UN Fact-Finding Mechanism.

Anglican bishops in Sudan appealed for warring sides to make peace in their Christmas messages. There are concerns that Darfur is again witnessing the atrocities of two decades ago, when 300,000 people died in fighting and millions of others were displaced.


Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo of Kinshasa called DR Congo’s recent presidential and provincial elections a “gigantic, organised mess” in his Christmas Day homily. Speaking at the Notre-Dame du Congo Cathedral in Kinshasa, he said that “what should have been a great celebration of democratic values quickly turned into frustration for many”. 

However, he urged “caution and restraint”, saying: “We are awaiting the reports of the various observation missions, in particular that of the joint mission of the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, which could help us to take the measure of the irregularities observed and to assess their impact on the credibility of these elections.”  

President Félix Tshisekedi was set to begin a second five-year term after being declared winner of the presidential election, although it was dismissed as a “sham” by several opposition candidates who are demanding a rerun.

The polls on 20 December were marred by widespread logistical problems, with voting times extended, polling stations opening late and voting machines not working.


Violent storms in early December destroyed a Catholic convent in Zimbabwe’s rural northwest, where vulnerable communities are suffering from the effects of climate change. The country’s meteorological services have struggled to provide reliable weather forecasts, leaving communities without an early warning system. 

The destruction on 10 December of the Catholic convent in Binga, a hamlet on the Zambezi River, left nuns and postulants without shelter, forcing them to seek alternative accommodation. The storms also destroyed the local primary school run by the sisters, leaving hundreds of school children stranded. 

According to Fr Adolf Simwinde, the parish priest, the storms blew off the roof of the convent and caused thousands of dollars of damage. Fr Simwinde has put out an appeal for financial assistance, highlighting the Pope’s call in Laudato Si’ for urgent support for poor countries on the frontlines of climate change.


Zimbabwe’s newest bishop has condemned corruption in the country and the lack of effective action to fight it. Bishop Raymond Tapiwa Mupandasekwa CSSR of Masvingo spoke at his installation on 10 December, following a seriesof scandals that have cost public funds but have not led to any high-profile arrests. 

Government critics say Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration has shown little commitment to confronting criminal syndicates.  Observers have accused Zimbabwe’s Catholic bishops of failing to speak out against mounting economic hardships and their causesafter threats to the Church from Mnangagwa’s ruling ZANU-PF party, but 53-year-old Bishop Mupandasekwa used his installation in Masvingo to demand action.  

“We must value justice and denounce all forms of corruption, both within and outside the Church,” the bishop said.


Families in Pakistani Punjab were freed over Christmas from slave labour in brick kilns, where they had been trapped by debts.

Fr Emmanuel Parvez, parish priest in Pansara, in the Diocese of Faisalabad, thanked donors who provided funds to settle their debts and give around 2,000 people from 38 villages their freedom. “These families, often Christian, are forced to produce more than 1,500 bricks per day to repay loans from the kiln owners,” he said. “We are trying to free them from this modern slavery.”

The Church also distributed material assistance and areas of land for cultivation. “These people – the poorest, the most vulnerable, the most deprived and without any education – deeply appreciate and understand the experience of God as liberator,” said Fr Parvez.


India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), hosted over 100 Christian leaders from different denominations at his official residence on Christmas morning, amid criticism of his government’s failure to tackle the persecution of Christians in India.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay and Archbishop Anil Couto of Delhi sat on either side of Modi during the event. “The nation proudly acknowledges the contribution of the Christian community,” said Modi. 

However, Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Faridabad said afterwards: “Everybody knows what is happening, but when the prime minister invites us, how can we decline?” 

A.C. Michael, coordinator of the United Christian Forum, expressed concern that Modi “praises Christian service publicly but does nothing to stop the increasing violence and persecution of Christians”. The forum recorded 687 incidents of violence against Christians from January to late November 2023.


The cathedral of the Syro-Malabar Church’s largest diocese was closed over Christmas for the second year running, due to fears that disputes over the liturgy could lead to violence. 

Although most of the over 300 parishes in the Archeparchy of Ernakulam-Angamaly  complied with the Christmas Day deadline – imposed by Pope Francis – to celebrate the reformed “uniform rite” of the Syro-Malabar liturgy, the Holy Qurbana, St Mary’s Basilica in Ernakulam remained closed. 

Its administrator Dr Antony Puthavelil said it would not resume operations “until it becomes possible to celebrate the synod-prescribed [uniform] Mass in a peaceful manner”.


The majority of South Korea’s Catholic women support reforms in the Church, including an end to clericalism, more freedom regarding sexuality, and more focus on the climate crisis, according to a recent survey.

About 87.2 per cent of 149 respondents said they support Church reforms, according to the survey conducted by Catholic group Ye Yeo Gong (“Women Studying Jesus”). Most respondents said  the Korean Church was “a barrier to following God’s word”, citing “discrimination against women that still exists in the Church”.

Around 86 per cent felt “women should be able to exercise leadership at all levels”, while 95 per cent said that “the language used in liturgy and Church documents should not be sexist”. Almost 64 per cent believed that clericalism is harming the Church.

Around 94 per cent agreed that “a woman’s freedom to have sex and become pregnant should be respected”.  And 95.3 per cent said “climate change is an urgent issue for the entire Church to address”.


Catholic leaders denounced a new law in Texas that makes crossing the international border without proper legal documentation a state crime, allowing authorities to detain those they suspect of entering the US illegally.

Texas’ Republican Governor Greg Abbott said the law was needed because President Joe Biden’s administration had failed to stop the arrival of undocumented migrants. Congress has failed to enact the comprehensive immigration reform needed to address the root causes of immigration from Central America to the US. 

The new law is “inhumane, immoral and unconstitutional”, said Dylan Corbett, director of the Hope Border Institute that works with and advocates for migrants. “Its only aim is to criminalise people seeking safety at the border and instil fear in families throughout Texas.” Corbett urged the Biden administration to challenge it in the courts. Jennifer Allmon of the Texas bishops’ conference called the new law “grossly imprudent”. 

Over Christmas, a migrant caravan of around 8,000 people travelled through Mexico towards the US border. Local churches distributed bottles of water and food to thousands of mostly Central American and Caribbean migrants who spent Christmas Eve in a public square of Mexico’s southern town of Alvaro Obregon before setting off again on Christmas Day.

In November, Central America’s bishops said that their nations were not properly addressing the migration issue, which was driven by unemployment among the youth. The US bishops’ migration committee, headed by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, Texas, urged Congress to protect unaccompanied migrant children from human trafficking.

US and Mexican officials were to meet this week in Mexico City to explore stemming the surge of migrants arriving at the border. In December, as many as 10,000 migrants were arrested there each day.


From January 2024 the Archdiocese of Chicago will switch its nearly 400 parishes, schools, and offices to 100 per cent renewable energy sources for its electricity needs. “As an expression of our commitment to the sanctity of life, the Archdiocese of Chicago has chosen to do all we can to ensure generations to come have a future,” said Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago. 

The archdiocese has purchased enough renewable energy certificates to cover electricity consumption for the coming year for more than 2,000 buildings. The renewables behind the certificates are almost entirely wind from across the Midwest.


A Catholic women’s college in Indiana has reversed a decision to admit transgender women after opposition from both the local bishop and from within the school community emerged.

“Some worried that this was much more than a policy decision: they felt it was a dilution of our mission or even a threat to our Catholic identity,” wrote Katie Conboy, the president of St Mary’s College president, and Maureen Karnatz Smith, chair of the school’s governing board, in a letter to the college community. “As this last month unfolded, we lost people’s trust and unintentionally created division where we had hoped for unity. For this, we are deeply sorry.” 

After the initial decision to admit transgender women was announced in November, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana urged the board to reverse course. Rhoades argued the school should “reject ideologies of gender that contradict the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church”.


Opus Dei reached a compromise with a Spanish diocese after a dispute over the control of a Marian shrine. 

The prelature had expressed “surprise” at the “unilateral” decision of Bishop Ángel Pérez Pueyo of Barbastro-Monzón to appoint a diocesan priest as rector of the Shrine of Torreciudad, which had been run by Opus Dei since the 1970s. Opus Dei said that control of the shrine – including the right to name the rector – was ceded to it at this time, but Bishop Pueyo refused to rescind his appointment. 

After he consulted the Dicastery for Clergy, the two parties agreed a “friendly” compromise to work side by side to provide “the best pastoral care for pilgrims”.


Belgium’s data protection agency (GBA) has ruled that the Diocese of Ghent must remove from its baptismal records a person who wanted to leave the Church in protest. The diocese had argued it could only add a note saying the person had decided to leave, since it had to keep records of such events to avoid administering the sacrament twice.

Unlike neighbouring Germany, Belgium has no official mechanism to quit the Church, but the GBA said data protection took precedence. “The lifetime retention of all the complainant’s data…is disproportionate from the moment complainants expressly state they wish to distance themselves from the Catholic Church,” it said. 

A diocesan spokesman expressed surprise because a similar case in Ireland was recently decided in the Church’s favour. He said the diocese would appeal. 

Belgian bishops face rising criticism recently for opposing “debaptism”, which has reportedly grown after the television broadcast of Gotvergeten (“Forgotten by God”), a critical report about clerical sexual abuse.


A poll found that 78 per cent of French Muslims think the state’s laïcité policy – the legal separation of Church and State in 1905 when France was still overwhelmingly Catholic – is prejudiced against them. 

In contrast, the traditionally Catholic (albeit non-practising) majority generally supports laïcité. About two-thirds of them think it is under attack, an accusation the anti-immigration party National Rally uses in attacks on France’s Muslim minority.

The poll by the IFOP opinion institute showed that two-thirds of French Muslims said they were practicing members of their faith, against about one-fifth of French Catholics claiming the same. About three-quarters of French Muslims with university degrees said they were religiously observant, in contrast to a small percentage of Catholics at the same educational level. 

A perennial issue, laïcité has become a subject of renewed debate in France after state schools in September banned as “religious” the abaya, a loose-fitting robe worn by Arab women, and an Islamist pupil stabbed a teacher to death the following month.

The poll, commissioned by the new Franco-Arab television channel Elmaniya, was also taken as tensions between Muslims and Jews rose because of the Israel-Hamas war. France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim and Jewish minorities.


Young people from 48 countries gathered in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana for a New Year Taizé meeting. The forty-sixth European Youth Meeting was at the invitation of the country’s bishops’ conference. In a greeting, Pope Francis encouraged the young people “to dare to build a different world, a world of listening, dialogue, and openness.”

The programme included daily prayers in ten churches of the city centre and workshops on various themes relating to faith, solidarity and culture. Each evening, Brother Matthew, the prior of Taizé, presented reflections on “Journeying Together”. The young people were invited to consider initiatives which they could undertake as pilgrims of peace.


COMECE, the Commission of Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, said an EU agreement on migration “will fail to protect the right to asylum and other human rights”.

The new EU rules include quicker vetting of irregular arrivals, faster deportation for those rejected, border detention centres and a better distribution of migrants away from countries along the Mediterranean. 

“Europe’s vocation is to work for a more just and fraternal world for all, not only for Europeans,” a COMECE statement said. “The fear of populism and of losing elections cannot be the guiding principles of our asylum and migration policies.” 

French bishops condemned a similar tightening of immigration rules just made law there. Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of Reims, head of the bishops’ conference, said “people, even in so-called irregular situations, must not be treated as delinquents”.  The new law sets tougher terms for benefits for migrants, new entry quotas and plans to strip dual-national convicts of French citizenship. National Rally leader Marine Le Pen hailed it as an “ideological victory”. 

Bishop Olivier Leborgne of Arras, which includes Calais, said migrants were being made into “scapegoats”.  “If you start saying human dignity will vary according to the person, then you are putting yourself in danger,” he said. “If it is not guaranteed for all, then it will be contested, including for you.”


Pope Francis encouraged Vatican officials to “learn the art of listening” in his annual Christmas address to the Curia.  “Discernment ought to help us, even in the work of the Curia, to be docile to the Holy Spirit, to choose procedures and make decisions based not on worldly criteria, or simply by applying rules, but in accordance with the Gospel,” he said. 

The Pope warned against “rigid ideological positions” and “the division between ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’” in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, “while the real difference is between lovers and those who have lost that initial passion”.


The Vatican is to publish a collection of previously unseen homilies by Pope Benedict XVI. Approximately 100 were delivered by the Pope Emeritus during his private celebrations of Sunday Mass in the 10 years of his retirement. They were recorded by the consecrated women of the lay association Memores Domini who tended him.

Thirty other homilies in the collection, curated by the Pope’s former spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi SJ, were delivered while Benedict XVI was still Pope. All are in Italian. The first, a meditation on St Joseph, was published before Christmas in L’Osservatore Romano and the German weekly Welt am Sonntag.

Fr Lombardi, the president of the board of directors of the Joseph Ratzinger-Benedict XVI Vatican Foundation, has described the late Pope Emeritus as a “master of the faith” who “deeply addressed the reasons for the crisis of our time”.


Agenzia Fides, the news service for the Pontifical Missions Society, reported that 20 missionaries were killed in 2023. They included one bishop, eight priests, two religious, one seminarian, one novice and seven laypeople. 

Nine were killed in Africa, one being a priest burned alive during an attack by an armed group at his parish in Minna, Nigeria. Mexico saw two priests and two catechists killed amid drug-related violence. Listed from Gaza are two parishioners of the Holy Family Catholic Church, shot dead by a sniper, who belonged to women’s group working for the poor and disabled.

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