Vie de l'église

Members of Ukraine’s parliament…

Members of Ukraine’s parliament asked for Pope Francis’ support in returning the thousands of Ukrainian children believed to be being held in Russian custody.

A group of Ukrainian parliamentarians traveled to Rome the week of Feb. 20 to meet with senior Vatican officials. In addition to asking for Francis to visit the war-torn country, they are requesting the pope’s support in returning to Ukraine children they say were abducted by Russian forces.

« We have seen the great impact of the Holy See’s help in prisoner exchanges, and so we would like to ask the pope’s help on the issue of the deported children, » said Yevhen Petruniak, one of the parliamentarians, in a meeting with journalists at the Ukrainian Embassy to the Holy See Feb. 21.

« For Russia, international law does not exist, laws don’t work, » he said, « so these processes can only be assured through the intervention of highly influential international leaders or influential international organizations, » like the pope and the Vatican.

In November 2022, Francis told reporters that the Vatican Secretariat of State had worked behind the scenes to help arrange prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia. In a video message published Feb. 4, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 1,762 Ukrainians have been returned from Russian captivity since the war began in February 2022.

« Be it a prisoner exchange or the return of children, these are not processes that that are conducted through legislation, » Petruniak said.

A study published by the Yale School of Public Health’s Humanitarian Research Lab Feb. 14 estimated that at least 6,000 Ukrainian children, aged 4 months to 17 years old, have been held in « re-education » camps in Russia-occupied Crimea and mainland Russia during the past year.

According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration, more than 16,000 children have been deported into Russia as of Feb. 21, many of whom have been adopted by Russian families.

« They are not adopted according to the laws, » Mykola Stefanchuk, a Ukrainian parliamentarian, told Catholic News Service. « They live in horrible houses and the main thing is that they live without their families, so we hope that the pope will help us (get) back our children. »

The delegation had requested a meeting with Francis during their visit to Rome to raise the issue with him directly. They met late Feb. 21 with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, the Vatican foreign minister. They also had a meeting scheduled with Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity.

« We are convinced that a statement by the Holy Father on the deported children could help them to return » to Ukraine, said Sergii Labaziuk, a member for Ukraine’s parliament since 2012. « For Ukrainians, every day is important, so the more each act or clear decision is postponed for us means more victims. »

The delegation also expressed its desire for Francis to visit Kyiv. The pope has previously said that he would only travel to Kyiv if he could also travel to Moscow.

Asked about the pope’s intention to visit the Russian capital, Parliamentarian Rostyslav Tistyk said it was « incorrect » for Francis to link the trips to Kyiv and Moscow together.

Vie de l'église

U.S. President Joe Biden’s…

President Joe Biden’s unexpected Feb. 20 visit to Kyiv, calmly walking alongside Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky as air raid sirens wailed in the capital, is being hailed as a surprise and a signal to the world.

Ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time, following an unannounced 4:15 a.m. Eastern time departure the day prior from Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

Biden spent more than five hours in Kyiv, meeting with Zelensky at Mariinsky Palace and walking to key sites in the city, including St. Michael Cathedral — with air raid sirens sounding, a near constant feature of life for Ukrainians living there.

« We wouldn’t expect that President Biden would come to the capital. Maybe Lviv, as it’s safer, but Kyiv? It’s really an amazing boost of hope and strength for us, » Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo of Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia told OSV News. « People were shocked. Some even thought this was an early April fool’s (joke), but it is for real, and somehow we all got the positive feeling that maybe war is finally coming to an end. »

Metropolitan Archbishop Borys Gudziak of the Archeparchy of Philadelphia and head of all Ukrainian Catholics in the U.S. told OSV News Biden’s decision to head to Kyiv caught him off guard.

« I was pretty much convinced (Biden) would come to Ukraine, but I was not sure he would go all the way to capital, » Archbishop Gudziak said. « I thought he would meet (with Zelensky) somewhere near the Polish border because of security concerns. »

Gudziak, who has just returned to the U.S. following his sixth visit to Ukraine over the past year, said Ukrainians are deeply grateful for what he called « outstanding » American support. He said one woman in Bucha — where a mass grave of Ukrainian civilians murdered by Russian troops was discovered in April 2022 — urged him to « thank all Americans and President Biden. »

« There’s nothing stronger than presence, and the presence of the president underlines his personal commitment, and that of the U.S. government and people, to freedom and democracy, » Gudziak told OSV News.

Biden and Zelensky laid wreaths at Kyiv’s Wall of Remembrance, which honors Ukrainian soldiers killed since Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014 by annexing Crimea and arming a separatist movement in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

« One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you, » Biden said in an address, according to reporters present.

Biden’s visit was « a very brave move, » Eugene Luciw, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Philadelphia chapter and a member of Presentation of Our Lord Ukrainian Catholic Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, told OSV News.

Seeing pictures of Biden — the U.S.’s second Catholic president — and Zelensky before St. Michael Orthodox Cathedral was particularly striking, Luciw said.

« I got this feeling, with St. Michael the Archangel, the patron of Kyiv, and with President Biden as a worldly sort of guardian of Ukraine — to have both spiritual and earthly guardians in that image was very moving, » he said.

Luciw also pointed out that St. Michael Cathedral was used as a field hospital during the 2014 Revolution of Dignity (also known as the Maidan Revolution), when scores of Ukrainians were killed and hundreds injured as Russian-backed Viktor Yanukovych, then president of Ukraine, cracked down on thousands of protesters who sought to align Ukraine with the European Union.

« The injured were treated there when hospitals were inaccessible, » said Luciw. « This cathedral has always been symbolic. It stands regardless of how many times Ukraine has been attacked over the centuries. The bells have always rung, warning of an attack coming. The cathedral itself is a bulwark to Ukraine’s defense, with St. Michael as the patron of Kyiv. »

Luciw said Biden’s visit « gave me the feeling that Ukraine is going to win, at a terribly massive cost — but Ukraine is destined to win with all that strength behind it. »

Fr. Roman Pitula, rector of the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia, said he was struck by the fact the visit coincided with the Feb. 20 memorial of Ukraine’s « Heavenly Hundred » — the 107 protesters killed during the Revolution of Dignity.

With fears that China could move to invade Taiwan in the coming years, Biden’s visit had a message for more than Moscow, said Nicholas Rudnytzky, professor of history and dean of academic services at Manor College in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, a school with deep historical roots in the U.S. Ukrainian-Catholic community.

« Democracies are undaunted, » Rudnytzky told OSV News. « A free people should not be allowed to be suppressed and dominated by a greater power. Might does not make right in the 21st century. The dogmas of the past need to be buried, and certain fundamental principles and rights we’ve all agreed upon since World War II cannot be violated. »

Gudziak agreed, saying he hoped Biden’s visit would « help many Americans refocus on the fact that Ukraine today is the epicenter of global change. »

A victorious Ukraine will ensure that « tyranny and dictators will be humbled, » said the archbishop. « The imperialism and colonialism of not only Putin, but that of other dictators will be undermined. »

With a renewed Russian offensive expected soon, Sobilo said Biden’s visit was « like a movie scene — and we’re hoping for a happy ending. »

« I hope this visit is the beginning of the end of this war, » said Pitula.

Vie de l'église

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David…

Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop David G. O’Connell, a native of Ireland who spent most of his four decades as a priest ministering in L.A.’s inner city, has died. He was 69. 

According to local news reports, he was fatally shot Feb. 18, 2023. Local news reports said Los Angeles Country sheriffs arrived at 1 p.m. to the bishop’s home and found him dead of a gunshot wound to his upper torso. An investigation was under way for a suspect and motive. 

« I am very sad this afternoon to report that our beloved Auxiliary Bishop David O’Connell has passed away unexpectedly, » said Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles in a statement Feb. 18. « It is a shock and I have no words to express my sadness. »

« Bishop Dave, » as he was known, was episcopal vicar for the archdiocese’s San Gabriel Pastoral Region since 2015, when Pope Francis named him an auxiliary bishop.

In his statement, Archbishop Gomez said O’Connell will be remembered as “a man of deep prayer who had a great love for Our Blessed Mother.”

« He was a peacemaker with a heart for the poor and the immigrant, and he had a passion for building a community where the sanctity and dignity of every human life was honored and protected, » the archbishop said.

« He was also a good friend, and I will miss him greatly, » continued Gomez, who asked for prayers for the bishop and his family in Ireland.

« May Our Lady of Guadalupe wrap him in the mantle of her love, and may the angels lead him into paradise, and may he rest in peace, » said the archbishop.

Born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1953, O’Connell studied for the priesthood at the former All Hallows College in Dublin and was ordained to serve in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in 1979. After ordination, he served as associate pastor in several parishes and as pastor at St. Frances X. Cabrini, Ascension, St. Eugene and St. Michael’s parishes — all in south Los Angeles.

There, O’Connell ministered to a community afflicted by gang violence, poverty, broken families, as well as tensions between locals and members of Los Angeles Police Department and the LA Sheriff’s Department that eventually boiled over during the LA riots in 1992 that followed the beating of Rodney King by police officers.

The riots broke out during then-Fr. O’Connell’s first tour at St. Frances X. Cabrini (1988-98). Bishop O’Connell would later tell how he was in Washington, testifying before a panel on Capitol Hill about violence in urban America, when the riots started. He came home days later to find widespread destruction in much of his parish’s territory.

Apart from aiding neighborhood recovery efforts, O’Connell pushed to restore trust between the inner-city residents and law enforcement. He and other local faith leaders helped organize meetings with police officers in people’s homes and provide opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation.

As a pastor, O’Connell also saw firsthand the effect of broken families on the community. That inspired him to organize retreats for men — usually in the mountains — focusing on how to be good fathers and husbands, something he saw as key to the health of a community.

During his time as auxiliary bishop in Los Angeles, evangelization, pastoral care for immigrants and ensuring the future of his region’s Catholic schools were all top priorities for O’Connell.

He was the chair of the interdiocesan Southern California Immigration Task Force, helping coordinate the local church’s response to the influx of migrants from Central America in recent years and navigating the challenges presented by changing immigration policies.

Last September, O’Connell was recognized for his tireless service to the community and the church in Los Angeles with the prestigious Evangelii Gaudium Award from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo.

At the national level, O’Connell currently was serving as chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on the Catholic Campaign for Human Development.

But despite his long list of accolades and accomplishments, O’Connell was known as a low-key priest with a down-to-earth demeanor and an Irish brogue he never bothered to try hiding. Those who knew him testify that he seemed most at ease with the people he spent all those years with in south L.A.

« It’s been the great joy of my life to be the pastor of these people, especially the ones who are suffering or in need or facing difficulty, » O’Connell said after being named a bishop in 2015. « And it’s been a great privilege, a great blessing to be given these parishes all these years, to be pastor all these years. The people have touched my heart the way they are sincere. »

Vie de l'église

George Lucas’ fantasy film…

George Lucas’ high fantasy adventure film « Willow » was released in 1988 — a year my dad remembers well: That year, the Dodgers won the World Series. And though 1988 is also the year I was born, I wouldn’t actually live through a Dodgers’ World Series win until 2020, and I wouldn’t see « Willow » until 2023.

Nevertheless, as a devoted « Star Wars » fan, I’ve known about Willow for a long time. Warwick Davis — the actor who portrays the titular character in both the original « Willow » and the new Disney+ series of the same name — played Wicket the Ewok in « Return of the Jedi, » where he first worked with Lucas and where the seeds of the eventual « Willow » film were planted. Davis has been involved in other « Star Wars » projects — not to mention the « Harry Potter » movies — and for years I’ve been curious about his starring role in that 1988 fantasy film.

Like « Star Wars, » « Willow » is an ode to the kinds of myths, epics and legends that so inspired Lucas in his storytelling. « Willow, » too, was a groundbreaking entry into the world of special effects — another staple of a George Lucas project. « Willow » — both the original and the sequel series — is a lighthearted, fun and funny adventure where good fights evil against the backdrop of trolls and castles and magic, where unlikely heroes rise to meet near-impossible odds and save the day.

The original « Willow » follows the young Nelwyn farmer and would-be sorcerer, Willow. A baby girl is found floating down the river near his village. We quickly learn that protecting this child, Elora Danan, is paramount to the future of the world. The evil queen, Bavmorda, is haunted by a prophecy that says Elora will be her downfall, and so she seeks the child. Importantly, she doesn’t want the child destroyed; she wants to banish the child to another realm, thus neutralizing the threat.

Obviously, Bavmorda fails, Willow succeeds, baby Elora is saved and 17 years of relative peace pass as we transition from the 1988 film to the 2022 Disney+ series. Unfortunately, in those intervening years evil has only grown in power. Bavmorda, it turns out, was merely a pawn of a greater foe — the Wyrm — and said foe is still determined to banish Elora.

The new series follows Elora (Ellie Bamber), Willow and a delightful cast of new characters as they quest through this much larger, richer and oddly comedic world in an effort to rescue Prince Airk Tanthalos (Dempsey Bryk) who has been kidnapped by the Gales, a hodgepodge of very evil-looking fiends. Airk and his twin, Princess Kit (Ruby Cruz) are the grandchildren of Bavmorda; turning them to the proverbial dark side would be a real boon to the Wyrm’s cause.

But what is most compelling from a spiritual perspective is that this high fantasy adventure doesn’t center on tempting heroes to the darkness; it doesn’t revolve around possessing or disposing of magical talismans or secret knowledge. Sure, there are talismans to find, magic to learn and good guys to turn bad — this is fantasy, after all. But that’s not the key.

Remember back to the original film: The goal was not to destroy Elora but to banish her, lest her spirit return and fulfill the prophecy. And in the new Disney+ series, we get to see what that banishment entails. In the finale, Elora very nearly chooses to stay in a walled-off realm. She’s tempted to waste away her life and her destiny in a dreamlike, fabricated utopia where pain is replaced with pleasure.

(Spoilers follow in the next three paragraphs.) With the help of Willow and his magic, Elora sees through the lie and elects to return to the difficulties of the very real world. Good thing, too, because in doing so, she defeats the Wyrm’s latest champion, the Crone, and brings our heroes’ quest to a happy-ish ending. (At least, as we wait to learn whether the series gets renewed for a second season.)

I’m struck by this idea that evil wins when heroes are tempted to waste away God-given talent and holy desire. In short, evil wins when we are kept from becoming who we are meant to be, when we toil away at trivial tasks or are absorbed in fruitless uses of our time. What are the walled-off realms of our lives? Do we get stuck in social media rabbit holes? Do we allow all of our attention and energy to become absorbed in some silly squabble?

Elora needed her friends to pull her back into the real world — not just their actions but their destinies. They needed her, as she needed them; who she was — and might yet be — was key to them becoming who they must be.

We’re all in this together, and we all have a God-given purpose. To use Ignatian language, the enemy of our human nature wins when we fail to recognize and live into our deepest desires and longings. We must act against the temptation to ignore or give up on who we know we are, who we might yet become and what we know we are invited to contribute to the common good.

« Willow » the series is important, too, because it seamlessly portrays a fantasy story driven not by white male heroes but by a diverse cast of characters — and actors — who invite us, the viewers, to sink into a world that is big and beautiful. And ultimately, in doing so, by inviting us to cheer for this band of unlikely heroes, we realize that maybe there’s nothing unlikely about them.

After all, we’re all called to be heroes. It’s evil — in whatever form — that tries to convince us otherwise.

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New Mexico Knights Offer Women Real Choices

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Oklahoma Knights Honor Our Lady of Guadalupe

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Bringing Hope to Ukraine

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Vie de l'église

 Gov. Josh Shapiro called on…

Gov. Josh Shapiro called on Pennsylvania’s legislature Feb. 16 to end the death penalty, marking the first time a governor of the Keystone State has formally called on lawmakers to abolish the practice. Shapiro also said he will not authorize its use during his term.

Shapiro, a Democrat who was sworn in Jan. 17 as governor, announced his decision during remarks while visiting the Mosaic Community Church in West Philadelphia.

« I will not issue any execution warrants during my term as Governor, » Shapiro wrote in a statement posted on Twitter.

« When one comes to my desk, I will sign a reprieve every time — and I’m asking the General Assembly to send me a bill abolishing the death penalty in Pennsylvania once and for all, » he said.

Shapiro, who has been vocal about his Jewish faith, cast his decision as a matter of conscience.

« I have considered every aspect of Pennsylvania’s capital sentencing system, reflected on my conscience and weighed the tremendous responsibilities I have, » he said. « Pennsylvania should do what 25 other states have done in outlawing the death penalty or refusing to impose it. »

Shapiro stressed that his decision not to authorize the practice « is not a statement on the integrity of individual capital convictions in Pennsylvania. »

« This is a fundamental statement of morality, » he said. « Of what’s right and wrong. And I believe Pennsylvania must be on the right side of this issue. »

Shapiro’s remarks dovetail with the Catholic Church’s call to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

In his 2020 encyclical, « Fratelli Tutti, » Pope Francis cited the writings of St. John Paul II, whom he said « stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice. »

« There can be no stepping back from this position, » Francis wrote. « Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide. »

The pontiff also revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, No. 2267) in 2018 to reflect that position.

« We applaud Governor Shapiro’s decision to not issue any death warrants during his term as Pennsylvania’s governor, » Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, told OSV News. The group she heads opposes capital punishment consistent with Catholic teaching.

« His announcement today went an important step further by urging Pennsylvania lawmakers to pursue repeal legislation, and to make a concerted effort to remove capital punishment from Pennsylvania’s books for good, » Vaillancourt Murphy said. « His announcement is an important reminder that governors have a critical role to play in moving states away from vengeful systems like capital punishment and toward more equitable and life-affirming approaches to justice. »

Vaillancourt Murphy said Shapiro « is correct in saying that ending capital punishment comes down to morality — the death penalty’s systemic flaws are plentiful, but the degree of its moral bankruptcy is interminable. »

« Because of this, it will take strong moral will from our political leaders to abolish it, » she added. « We were grateful to see an example of this kind of moral leadership coming from Gov. Shapiro today, and we pray that more governors in death penalty states will soon follow suit. »

Pennsylvania has carried out three executions since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, and currently has the country’s fifth largest death row.

In 2021, the Biden administration ordered a moratorium on carrying out federal death sentences. That policy suspended, but did not end, the practice at the federal level.

Vie de l'église

« I am close to you, and I pray for…

« I am close to you, and I pray for you, » Pope Francis told the Turkish people reeling from earthquakes that killed nearly 42,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria, according to figures updated Feb. 16.

During a meeting with Ufuk Ulutas, Turkey’s new ambassador to the Holy See, the pope wrote a message to the « noble Turkish people » and said his thoughts and prayers are with them « in this moment of so much pain. »

Two 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquakes struck southern Turkey Feb. 6. Ten days after the quakes, at least 36,000 people were reported dead in Turkey and another 5,800 in Syria.

Via the papal almoner, Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, Francis sent 10,000 thermal shirts to earthquake victims in southern Turkey Feb. 15. Over 6.3 million people in the region are believed to be sleeping in temporary lodging such as tents and shipping containers in below-freezing temperatures.

Archbishop Claudio Gugerotti, prefect of the Dicastery for Eastern Churches, was scheduled to travel to Turkey and Syria Feb. 17-21 to express the pope’s closeness to those affected by the earthquake, the Vatican said Feb. 16.

The archbishop was scheduled to meet with Catholic relief organizations and religious congregations working on the ground as well as the leaders of Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim communities in the region. In Damascus, Syria, the archbishop planned to visit a mosque hosting people left homeless after the earthquake.

The dicastery said in a statement that Gugerotti’s trip aims « to encourage all those working to confront the emergency, » and to express « the need to establish better coordination » among relief efforts that will be needed in the coming months.

Vie de l'église

Pope Francis sent 10,000 thermal…

Pope Francis sent 10,000 thermal shirts to earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, where millions are sleeping outdoors in below-freezing temperatures.

Two 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquakes devastated the region Feb. 6, killing more than 40,000, according to figures released Feb. 15.

According to the Vatican, the winter clothing was personally transported to the port of Naples, some 115 miles south of Rome, by Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the papal almoner, Feb. 14.

The shirts were scheduled to arrive in Turkey Feb. 17 and be delivered to the Kilis refugee camp in southern Turkey, which has hosted refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria since 2012 and currently holds some 60,000 people.

The Vatican said Francis also sent an undisclosed amount of financial aid to the apostolic nunciature in Syria to support the Syrian people « already exhausted by so many years of war and now by the devastating earthquake. »

Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said that over 1 million people in Turkey are living in temporary housing facilities, such as tents and shipping containers, as of Feb. 11. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated that as many as 5.3 million people could be left homeless in Syria as a result of the earthquakes. In February, nighttime temperatures in the region consistently fall below 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

The Turkish government received criticism for its response to the disaster after backups on roads and airports made it difficult for international aid to reach its destinations. In Syria, the ongoing civil war blocked aid from reaching opposition-held territories immediately following the earthquakes.

The distribution of the thermal shirts will be organized by the Rava Foundation, a charity that supports vulnerable children worldwide.

In December, the Dicastery for the Service of Charity organized a drive to collect thermal shirts for people in Ukraine without electricity during the Christmas season. The Vatican said Krajewski brought the shirts, along with 40 generators, to Ukraine in the days leading up to Christmas.