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Hong Kong Catholics told to look online as Mass cancelled across China

Hong Kong, China, Feb 26, 2020 / 12:30 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Hong Kong has told Catholics to make use of online resources following the cancellation of Masses in response to the coronavirus. Catholics in mainland China, where all places of worship have been closed, are blocked from accessing these resources by the “Great Firewall,” which prevents access to many parts of the internet.

The Hong Kong diocese indefinitely cancelled all public Masses and group religious activities, with the exception of weddings and funerals, in a decision announced Feb. 25. The move follows a prior temporary suspension.

“Believers can make good use of online resources, such as online weekday Masses, faith cultivating information, and other good works of Lent, such as morning prayers, the rosary, the Angelus,” a diocesan statement said.

The Archbishop of Singapore William Goh Seng Chye made a similar recommendation in a Feb. 14 pastoral letter announcing an indefinite suspension of all public Masses. He advised Catholics to “try to follow the broadcast of the Mass on YouTube or CatholicSG Radio.”

In mainland China, where the Communist government has cancelled all religious gatherings and closed all places of worship, Catholics do not have access to similar online resources. In September 2018, the Chinese government instituted regulations making it illegal for religious services, prayer, or preaching to be broadcast online. 

Online evangelization is strictly prohibited, as are materials aimed at converting readers. Catechetical or instructive resources cannot be openly published online and must be restricted to internal networks accessed with registered user names and passwords.

A 2012 analysis published by a Chinese Communist Party think tank scholar identified both religion and “internet freedom” as future threats to China’s rise. Subsequent years have seen  crackdowns on both freedom of the internet and religious freedom.

China has long been known for its strict control of information, including restricting internet access and creating alternative social media platforms that are completely controlled by government surveillance and censorship. Twitter, Google, Facebook, and YouTube are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall.” 

In the weeks following the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government has censored online posts by Chinese citizens critical of the government’s handling of the epidemic.

The official death toll of the coronavirus in China is 2,666; more than 77,780 have been infected, according to the government.

The virus has spread to 33 countries, with about 2,459 confirmed cases outside mainland China and 34 deaths.

As the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in South Korea has grown to 1,261, Korean news sources reported Feb. 26 that public Masses in all 16 Catholic dioceses have been suspended. 

In Hong Kong, parishes with suspended Masses have the option to keep their doors open to allow for people to pray individually before the Eucharist and crucifix, but Catholics have been encouraged to stay at home. 

The Diocese of Hong Kong has also offered local Catholics an alternative to sacramental Confession during Lent.

“Usually, the Church encourages the faithful to confess during Lent. However, in current circumstances, some faithful may find it risky to go to confession, but they can be sure that a sincere desire to receive the sacrament of reconciliation, together with prayers and works of penance and charity, satisfies the Lenten obligation of repentance,” a diocesan announcement states in Chinese.

Hong Kong is home to around 500,000 Catholics out of a total population of over 7 million. As of Feb. 26, 2 people have died and 81 have been infected in Hong Kong.

“I wish to express again my closeness to the coronavirus patients and the health workers who treat them, as well as to the civil authorities and all those who are working to assist the patients and stop the infection,” Pope Francis said Feb. 26.

ACLU lawsuit targets 'sanctuary cities' for the unborn

Austin, Texas, Feb 26, 2020 / 12:00 pm (CNA).- The American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday filed lawsuits against seven Texas cities that have declared themselves “sanctuary cities” for unborn children.

The cities of Waskom, Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary, and Wells have all passed ordinances declaring that abortion will be illegal in the cities if Roe v. Wade were to be overturned, although no criminal punishments would be imposed upon the mother.

The ACLU complaint states that while the ordinances banning abortion cannot be enforced under Roe v. Wade, they go further and list pro-abortion organizations as “criminal organizations.”

The ordinance of the City of Naples states that “Organizations that perform abortions and assist others in obtaining abortions are declared to be criminal organizations.” It lists as criminal organizations Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, The Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equality, and Texas Equal Access Fund, among other groups.

The ACLU of Texas filed suit against the ordinances at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas.

“As a result of being designated criminal, Plaintiffs are prohibited from operating, speaking, and associating within these cities,” the ACLU’s complaint states.

In a statement to CNA, Pastor Mark Lee Dickson, the director of Right to Life of East Texas, called the legal action "a meritless lawsuit brought to deter and intimidate cities from enacting these ordinances, which are entirely constitutional and consistent with the laws of Texas."

"We have a legal team ready to defend these ordinances at no charge to the cities, and we are prepared to defend all other cities that enact these laws at no charge to the taxpayers," Dickson said.

"We are eager to defend these ordinances in court. With the new membership on the Supreme Court, we welcome court challenges to abortion laws that will weaken and lead to the eventual overruling of Roe v. Wade."

The pro-life “sanctuary city” movement began last June when the Waskom City Council voted 5-0 to ban surgical and medical abortions.

Since then, ten other cities in Texas have adopted similar ordinances, all of them banning surgical and medical abortions and some banning the sale of emergency contraception. Four of the cities—Colorado City, Westbrook, Gilmer, and Big Spring—are not mentioned in the ACLU lawsuit.

All of the ordinances include clauses protecting the mother of an aborted child from punishment.

The group Texas Right to Life said the lawsuit is “a hodgepodge of complaints” and is “selectively targeting smaller cities that have passed the ordinance.”

The seven cities “acted within their constitutional rights to self-governance and within the scope of current U.S. Supreme Court abortion jurisprudence,” the group stated.

In addition to the 11 “sanctuary cities,” 12 more Texas cities are considering similar ordinances.

Some of the ordinances include the sale of emergency contraception on the list of banned practices.

While not all Christians believe that the morning-after pill is an abortifacient, the Catholic Church recognizes the pill as an abortifacient if it prevents a fertilized embryo from implanting in the woman’s uterus.

The Church teaches that, for victims of rape, use of emergency contraception can be morally licit to prevent conception as a means of self-defense, if testing determines that conception has not occurred by the time of usage.

Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday: Confession purifies hearts

Vatican City, Feb 26, 2020 / 11:00 am (CNA).- On Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis called on Catholics to go to Confession during Lent to experience God’s healing love. 

“We can receive God's forgiveness in the sacrament of Penance because there the fire of God's love consumes the ashes of our sin. The embrace of the Father in confession renews us inside and purifies our heart,” Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday homily Feb. 26. 

“Only Jesus, who knows and loves our heart, can heal it. Lent is a time of healing,” he said in the Basilica of Santa Sabina.

Before going to confession, Pope Francis recommended, people should stand in front of the Crucifix and contemplate Christ on the cross.

While looking at the crucifix, the pope said one can repeat the following prayer: “Jesus, you love me, transform me.” After welcoming God’s love and crying in front of the cross, receive God’s forgiveness in Confession, he said.

“Let's look inside, into our hearts: how many times do we extinguish the fire of God with the ashes of hypocrisy,” Pope Francis said.

“How often do we do things only to be recognized, to look good, to satisfy our ego? How often do we profess to be Christians, yet in our hearts readily yield to passions that enslave us? How often do we preach one thing and practice another? How many times do we make ourselves look good on the outside while nursing grudges within?” he asked. “We need to be cleansed of all the dust that has sullied our hearts.”

Pope Francis said Lent is not a time “for useless sermons,” but instead it is “a time of grace” to welcome God’s loving gaze and then to change one’s life.

To mark the start of the Lenten season, Pope Francis prayed silently at St. Anselm Church on the Aventine Hill in Rome before processing the short way to the Basilica of Santa Sabina for the offering of the Mass and the imposition of ashes.

As the procession of cardinals, bishops, priests, Benedictine monks, Dominican friars, and lay people made their way between the two churches, they sang the Litany of the Saints.

The tradition of a Lenten pilgrimage by the Bishop of Rome and Catholics in the city to the tombs of the martyrs dates back to the early fourth century. 

“The ashes we receive on our foreheads should affect the thoughts passing through our minds,” Pope Francis said in his homily.

“If I live only to earn money, to have a good time, to gain a bit of prestige or a promotion in my work, I am living for dust,” he added. “That is not why we have been put in this world. We are worth so much more. We live for so much more, for we are meant to make God’s dream a reality and to love.”

The pope said that the earthly goods we possess will fade away, but the love we give to our families, to our work, in the Church, and in the world will remain forever.

“Ashes are sprinkled on our heads so that the fire of love can be kindled in our hearts,” he said.

“May we allow ourselves to be reconciled, in order to live as beloved children, as forgiven and healed sinners, as wayfarers with him at our side. Let us allow ourselves to be loved, so that we can give love in return,” Pope Francis said.

Secretary of German bishops' conference steps down

Bonn, Germany, Feb 26, 2020 / 10:00 am (CNA).- The secretary of the German bishops’ conference has announced that he will step down from his position ahead of the group’s next general assembly in early March. Fr. Hans Langendörfer, SJ, has held the position since 1996.

Langendörfer made the announcement Feb. 26, through the official media outlet of the Church in Germany. He said that he is stepping down to make way for someone younger.

"I have come to the conclusion that it is now a good time to hand this position over to younger hands," he said Feb. 25. Langendörfer is 68.

According to Katholisch.de, the Jesuit priest noted during his announcement that it was not necessary for his successor to be a cleric and suggested that layperson could fill the role, which would be a first in the 172 year history of the conference.

The announcement comes two weeks after the chairman of the German bishops’ conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Münich and Freising, said he would not seek a second term leading the conference, and that he wanted to see a “younger generation” assume leadership. Marx is 66.

Under the leadership of Langendörfer and Marx, the German bishops’ conference opened a so-called “binding synodal process” to review a range of Church teachings and disciplines including clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, and the blessing of same-sex unions in churches.

In an interview last month, Langendörfer said that it is “unacceptable” for the Holy See to continue to exercise final authority over universal teaching and discipline. Citing the example of the Church in Germany’ “synodal process,” he called on other regions to follow the German’s example and effectively force through a new federal model on the Church.

Shortly after Marx announced that he would step down, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, vice-chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said he would not stand for election to replace Marx. Bode, 69, has been outspoken in favor of substantial changes in Church discipline.

In a 2018 interview, Bode predicted that Pope Francis would allow the ordination of married men for service in remote regions of the Amazon following a synod on the region, convened in Rome last year.

Bode said that if and when the Pope allowed married priests to be ordained in the Amazon, German bishops would insist on the same authorization.

“This is obvious,” Bode said at the time, insisting that the “pastoral emergency” in his diocese of Osnabrück and in other German dioceses is “different but also very severe.”

A possible leading candidate to replace Marx is Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, 56, who is also president of Adveniat, the Church in Germany’s aid organization for Latin America.

Essen, like Bode, predicted that last year’s synod on the Amazon would lead to important changes to universal Church discipline. Before the synod met, Overbeck called the Amazonian synod “a point of no return” for the Church and that “nothing will be the same as it was.”

On Feb. 12, Pope Francis published the post-synodal apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia in which he did not allow for any exception to clerical celibacy in the Amazon.

The German “synodal process” is being conducted in partnership with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), a group which publicly opposes Church teaching and discipline on the subjects being discussed by the synodal assembly.

Last year, Pope Francis wrote a letter to the whole Church in Germany, warning against a false synodality rooted in making the Church conform to modern secular morals and thought, which he called “a new Pelagianism” which seeks “to tidy up and tune the life of the Church, adapting it to the present logic.”

The result, Francis said, would be a “well organized and even ‘modernized’ ecclesiastical body, but without soul and evangelical novelty.”

Vatican officials subsequently informed the German bishops’ conference that the synodal plans were “not ecclesiologically valid,” and had to be substantially revised. Roman opposition notwithstanding, the synodal process formally began in the first week of Advent, 2019, and the first session was held in January, 2020.

Following the first meeting last month, the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Woelki, expressed his disappointment in the “synodal process.”

“I basically saw all my fears confirmed. We witnessed the implementation of a de facto Protestant church parliament,” Woekli said in an interview Feb. 1.

The cardinal said that attempts to democratize Church teaching and discipline, and subvert the authentic teaching office of bishops in the synodal assembly went against “the hierarchical constitution of the Church, as documented again in Vatican Council II and expressed in Lumen Gentium.” Cardinal Woelki is 63.

'Repent and accept the Gospel' Trumps say in Ash Wednesday statement

Washington D.C., Feb 26, 2020 / 09:00 am (CNA).- President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump issued a presidential message on Wednesday, Feb. 26, acknowledging Ash Wednesday and offering prayers for everyone observing Lent. 

The Trumps said in the message that they wished “everyone observing Ash Wednesday a peaceful and prayerful day.” 

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the liturgical season of Lent, during which Catholics observe a time of repentance and preparation for Easter through the practice of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. 

“Today, millions of Christians will be marked on their foreheads with the sign of the cross. The imposition of ashes is an invitation to spend time during Lent fasting, praying, and engaging in acts of charity,” said the statement from the Trumps.

“This powerful and sacred tradition reminds us of our shared mortality, Christ’s saving love, and the need to repent and accept the Gospel more fully,” they said. 

The president and first lady offered prayers for everyone who is observing Ash Wednesday, and said they wished everyone a “prayerful Lenten journey.” 

“May you grow closer to God in your faith during this blessed season,” said the message. 

This is the first time the Trumps have issued a message concerning Ash Wednesday. The last presidential message on Ash Wednesday was released in 2016 by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. 

In addition to prayers for those observing Lent, the Obamas extended prayers to “all those who suffer, including those Christians who are subjected to unspeakable violence and persecution for their faith.”

Pope Francis' Lent advice: Put down phone, pick up Bible

Vatican City, Feb 26, 2020 / 02:55 am (CNA).- Pope Francis urged Catholics Wednesday to use the season of Lent to spend less time immersed in the chatter and noise of the world through television and their phones, and to spend more time in silence and in conversation with God.

“Lent is the right time to make room for the Word of God. It is the time to turn off the television and open the Bible. It is the time to disconnect from your cell phone and connect to the Gospel,” the pope said Feb. 26.

This penitential period, he continued, is also the time to work on giving up gossip, rumors, and useless chatter, focusing instead on giving yourself to the Lord, who spent 40 days in the desert in fasting and prayer.

During Lent, Jesus is “calling us into the desert,” Francis explained. Jesus “invites us to listen to what matters. To the devil who tempted him, he replied: ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

“Like bread, more than bread we need the Word of God, we need to speak with God: we need to pray,” he urged.

In his weekly general audience, which fell on Ash Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on the “desert” of Lent and how countercultural it is to spend time in silence, away from the noisiness of modern life.

“We live in an environment polluted by too much verbal violence, by many offensive and harmful words, which the internet amplifies,” he explained.

“We are inundated with empty words, with advertisements, with subtle messages. We have become used to hearing everything about everyone and we risk slipping into a worldliness that atrophies our hearts.”

In this noise, “we struggle to distinguish the voice of the Lord who speaks to us, the voice of conscience, of good,” the pope said.

According to Francis, the ‘desert’ of Lent, where we can be in conversation with the Lord, becomes a life-giving place.

He acknowledged that it is not easy to make space for silence in one’s heart, but invited everyone to imagine themselves in the desert, surrounded by a great silence, with “no noises, apart from the wind and our breath.”

“It is the absence of words to make room for another Word, the Word of God,” he said.

Pointing again to the image of the desert, Pope Francis said it recalls what is essential, and how often in life people become surrounded by many useless things.

“We chase a thousand things that seem necessary and in reality are not. How good it would be for us to get rid of so many superfluous realities, to rediscover what matters, to find the faces of those around us!” he urged.

“Prayer, fasting, works of mercy: here is the road into the Lenten desert.”

The solitude of the desert also reminds us of the people around us who are lonely and abandoned, he said, saying the “path in the Lenten desert is a path of charity towards the weaker.”

He also said fasting is a way of seeking a simpler life by giving up superfluous, vain things. But, he warned, it is not about “slimming down.”

“In the desert one finds intimacy with God, the love of the Lord,” he stated. “The road that leads us from death to life opens up in the desert. We enter the desert with Jesus, we will go out savoring Easter…”

“Have courage.”