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Pope warns of risk of getting ‘stiff neck’ by looking away from suffering

Society has slipped into a culture of indifference so pervasive that « our necks are going to get stiff » from constantly turning away from the suffering of marginalized people, Pope Francis said.

The pope’s prayer intention for the month of September is dedicated to « people living on the margins, » and in his video message, he lamented the « throwaway culture » of today’s world which prioritizes economic growth over the wellbeing of people.

« How is it that we allow throwaway culture — in which millions of men and women are worth nothing compared to economic goods — how is it that we allow this culture to dominate our lives, our cities, our way of life? » the pope asked.

« Our necks are going to get stiff from looking the other way so we don’t have to see this situation, » he said.

The video released with the pope’s prayer message showed various realities of marginalized people, including scenes of poverty-stricken slums alongside bustling cities, persons with disabilities, the elderly and homeless.

« A homeless person who dies on the street will never appear among the top stories of search engines or newscasts, » Francis said in his message. « How could we have reached this level of indifference? »

The pope urged people to « stop making invisible those who are on the margins of society, whether it’s due to poverty, addictions, mental illness or disability. » Instead, he asked to « focus on accepting them, on welcoming all the people who need it. »

To counter the throwaway culture, Francis proposed developing a « culture of welcoming » which provides hospitality, shelter, love and human warmth to those in need.

The pope ended his message by soliciting prayers for those « on the margins of society in subhuman living conditions, that they may not be neglected by institutions and never be cast out. »

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Judge rules ex-cardinal McCarrick not competent to stand trial

A judge ruled August 30 that a 93-year-old former Roman Catholic cardinal is not competent to stand trial after both prosecutors and defense attorneys determined he suffers from dementia, and dismissed charges he sexually assaulted a teenage boy in Massachusetts decades ago.

Theodore McCarrick, the ex-archbishop of Washington, D.C., was defrocked by Pope Francis in 2019 after an internal Vatican investigation determined he sexually molested adults as well as children. The case created a credibility crisis for the church, as the Vatican had reports from authoritative cardinals dating to 1999 that McCarrick’s behavior was problematic, yet he became an influential cardinal, kingmaker and emissary of the Holy See’s « soft diplomacy. »

The once-powerful American prelate faced charges that he abused the teenage boy at a wedding reception at Wellesley College in 1974.

During August 30’s hearing, a psychologist hired by the prosecution said she found significant deficits in McCarrick’s memory during two interviews in June, and he was often unable to recall what they had discussed from one hour to the next. Dr. Kerry Nelligan said she administered a number of tests on two occasions in June. As with any form of dementia, she said there are no medications that could improve the symptoms.

« It’s not just that he currently has these deficits, » Nelligan said. « There is no way they are going to get better. »

Without being able to remember discussions, he could not participate with his lawyers in his defense, she said.

McCarrick appeared via a video link during the hearing. He was slightly slumped in his chair wearing a light green shirt and what appeared to be a grey sweater vest or sweater around his shoulders. He did not speak during the hearing.

McCarrick has maintained that he is innocent, and pleaded not guilty in September 2021. He was also charged in April with sexually assaulting an 18-year-old man in Wisconsin more than 45 years ago.

In February, McCarrick’s attorneys asked the court to dismiss the case, saying a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine had examined him and concluded that he has dementia, likely Alzheimer’s disease.

At that time, lawyers said McCarrick had a « limited understanding » of the criminal proceedings against him.

McCarrick, who lives in Dittmer, Missouri, was charged with three counts of indecent assault and battery on a person over 14. He was not exempt from facing charges because the clock stopped on the statute of limitations when he left Massachusetts.

Mitchell Garabedian, a well-known lawyer for clergy sexual abuse victims who is representing the man accusing McCarrick, said in June that his client was discouraged by the prosecution expert’s findings.

« In spite of the criminal court’s decision today, » Garabedian said following August 30’s hearing, « many clergy sexual abuse victims feel as though former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick is and will always be the permanent personification of evil within the Catholic Church. »

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who report sexual assault unless they agree to be named publicly, which the victim in this case has not done.

The accuser told authorities during a 2021 interview that McCarrick was close to the man’s family when he was growing up. Prosecutors say McCarrick would attend family gatherings and travel on vacations with them and that the victim referred to the priest as « Uncle Ted. »

Prosecutors say McCarrick abused him over several years including when the boy, who was then 16, was at his brother’s wedding reception at Wellesley College. The man said McCarrick also sexually assaulted him in a coat room after they returned to the reception.

Prosecutors say McCarrick told the boy to say the « Hail Mary » and « Our Father » prayers before leaving the room.

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Pope Francis’ Mongolia trip to be ‘event of the century’ for tiny Catholic community there

While the eyes of much of the world are on both Russia and China these days, when Pope Francis lands this week in Mongolia — a nation sandwiched between those two geopolitical hotspots — don’t expect the pontiff to be greeted by throngs of wildly enthusiastic fans. 

With fewer than 1,500 Catholics, according to Consolata Missionary Fr. Ernesto Viscardi, « there will be no crowds along the roads at his passage shouting ‘viva il papa’ or waving Vatican flags, as we are normally used to seeing in his visits to other nations. »

Even so, according to Viscardi, who has served in the country since 2004, Francis’ Sept. 1-4 visit will be the « event of the century for our young church. » 

No pope has ever visited Russia or China, nor Mongolia. Until now.

By visiting the vast nation of only 3.4 million inhabitants, with one of the world’s smallest Catholic communities, Francis, in his distinct way, will put Mongolia on the map.  

« Often in his words, we hear expressions like ‘go to the outskirts, the peripheries, let us be an outgoing church,’  » Viscardi told NCR ahead of Francis’ arrival in the country. « And this is what he practiced himself in his many apostolic journeys, especially to those places of major conflicts and tensions. »

« Why then not go to the tiniest, and, by numbers, maybe least significant of the Catholic communities? » he asked.  

Mongolia will mark the 43rd international visit of Francis’ decade-long papacy, during which he has intentionally bypassed major world capitals in favor of visiting places like Kazakhstan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates where Catholics are few in number. 

As with similar papal trips, this visit by Francis is meant to both encourage the local Catholic community, while bolstering interfaith relations in a nation where all religions are regaining their footing following its Communist era, which ended in the early 1990s.    

After breaking from Soviet rule in 1990, Mongolia formed its own constitution in 1992, guaranteeing freedom of religion.  

Saskia Adelle Abrahms-Kavunenko, author of Enlightenment and the Gasping City: Mongolian Buddhism at a Time of Environmental Disarray, noted that this period was one of a « flurry of activity » when both religious identity and nationalist identity were being reimagined — and the two were highly connected. 

While this primarily led to a revival of the country’s Buddhist identity — some 53% of the country now identifies as Buddhists — Abrahms-Kavunenko told NCR that this era led to « widespread freedom of religion and an embracing of new religious traditions. » 

Among them, Catholicism, whose first modern missionaries arrived in the country in 1992. 

Viscardi noted that plans for a papal visit by John Paul were underway dating back to then, but they never materialized due to numerous complications. 

During his three-night stay in Mongolia’s capital of Ulaanbaatar, Francis is scheduled to meet with the country’s political and civil authorities, interfaith leaders, the country’s priests and religious men and women — some 75 missionaries — and to celebrate Mass in an indoor hockey arena for the country’s small Catholic population, as well as those traveling from nearby Asian countries. 

Italian Cardinal Giorgio Marengo — who has served as a missionary to the country for two decades and who Francis elevated to the College of Cardinals in 2022 — has said that he hopes the visit will introduce the country’s miniscule Catholic population to the fact that they are part of a much larger, global Catholic community. 

But Marengo, who is 49 and the world’s youngest Catholic cardinal, has said that in Mongolia, the Gospel is preached through a « whisper » with quiet, interpersonal relationships. 

« The Catholic community in Mongolia is a tiny minority, just like the first Christian communities, » observed Viscardi, who expects the pope to « strengthen the faith of the members of the community and to look ahead for new challenges. » 

Beyond spiritual challenges, Abrahms-Kavunenko noted that Mongolia lies in a difficult backyard and has walked a fine line trying to maintain relationships with tough neighbors. 

« In the post-Socialist period, Mongolia has been keen to make friends, » she said, speculating about one reason the head of the Catholic Church has been invited for an official state visit. 

And in a place where the legacy of its most famous ruler, the 13th-century emperor Genghis Khan, looms large, perhaps one of the most prominent leaders on the global stage today can offer a message to both the descendants in the land of Khan and beyond its borders, especially to nearby Russia and China. 

« The pope’s presence here will surely send indirectly a message of encouragement to the Catholic communities present in these nations, » Viscardi predicted. « It will be a way to say: ‘Courage, I am near you.’ « 

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World needs politicians who uphold Catholic social teaching, pope says

Pope Francis prayed that God would raise up a new generation of « well-educated and faithful Catholics leaders committed to promoting the church’s social and ethical teachings » through public service, especially in politics.

Such leaders, he told members of the International Catholic Legislators Network, can contribute to building God’s kingdom by placing human life and dignity at the center of their concern and ensuring care for the environment and the world’s poorest people.

The pope met at the Vatican Aug. 26 with the legislators who were holding their annual meeting in Frascati, south of Rome, and focusing on what they see as « dehumanizing trends » in politics, economics and technology.

A key feature of the trends, which have a « negative impact upon both human and natural ecology alike, » the pope said, is a « subtle seduction of the human spirit, lulling people — and especially the young — into misusing their freedom. »

« We see this when men and women are encouraged to exercise control over, instead of responsible custodianship of material or economic ‘objects,’ the natural resources of our common home or even one another, » the pope said.

Seeing everything and even other people as an object to be used for one’s personal benefit, he said, « ultimately impacts most negatively on the poorest and most vulnerable in society. »

Even the connections people find on social media can be dehumanizing, he said, when they are used to spread « fake news » or to promote hatred and division.

« This misuse of virtual encounter can only be overcome by the culture of authentic encounter, which involves a radical call to respect and to listen to one another, including those with whom we may strongly disagree, » Francis told the legislators.

On the other hand, he said, international networks like the Catholic legislators’ group can show a better way not only by connecting people, but also by uniting them in a common project.

Such a network mirrors the church itself, he said, because it is a community « called to live in both communion and mission. »

« Those ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’ forces of the Christian life, sustained by the power of the Holy Spirit, inwardly bind people together in fraternal unity and direct them outward on the shared mission of joyfully proclaiming the Gospel, » Francis told the group.


Keys to the Kingdom

(Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year A; This homily was given on August 26 & 27, 2023 at Saint Augustine Church in Providence, Rhode Island; See Isaiah 22:19-23 and Matthew 16:13-20)

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‘A Fever in the Heartland’ links Klan history to MAGA movement

As the right-wing movements of intolerance gain greater and greater hold over the levers of American political and judicial power today, historians have begun to examine their roots in earlier periods of American history. Timothy Egan’s A Fever in the Heartland draws powerful and uncomfortable parallels between the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the rise of the MAGA movement in the past decade.  

A Fever in the Heartland: The Ku Klux Klan’s Plot to Take Over America, and the Woman Who Stopped Them

Timothy Egan

404 pages; Viking


Linda Gordon’s recent history of the Klan addressed this same period and argued persuasively that the 1920s Klan was no fringe extremist movement, but rather a mainstream American cultural, economic and political force that swept the nation. Timothy Egan, a prolific author of at least 10 nonfiction books, New York Times columnist and winner of the National Book Award for his history of the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, takes a slightly different approach. He focuses intently on a particular Klan organizer with unsettling parallels to some of today’s right-wing leaders.

Religious bigotry animated the 1920s Klan powerfully. That bigotry had deep roots and widespread reach among America’s white Protestant population, a significant portion of whom embraced the violent intolerance for Catholics, Jews and Blacks that the Klan inflamed. Egan is less interested in conveying the breadth of this activity than he is in examining the moral hypocrisy that the Klan leaders practiced as they led what Klan members saw as a movement to restore moral integrity to American culture. He directs his focus tightly around the rise, rule and eventual downfall of the Klan’s most dynamic and powerful leader, D.C. Stephenson. 

Though many Americans likely associate the Klan with the American south, where it first began in the 19th century and where it held powerful sway in the 1920s, Egan points out that the northern Klan did the most damage. He notes that the state with the highest percentage of Klan members and the state in which the Klan exercised the most complete control over state and local governments was actually Indiana. Hoosiers happily welcomed — even championed — efforts to constrain Catholics and Jews, to limit their economic activities and their participation in civil life and to target Black people even more intently and violently. 

But if Indianans, Ohioans, Pennsylvanians and Michiganders were ripe for exploitation, it took D.C. Stephenson’s skillful manipulation to turn that anxiety and hate into Klan memberships. He sold the hooded order masterfully through such tactics as large outdoor rallies, parades and visits to Protestant churches. And, of course, cross burnings.  

Egan twins his telling of Stephenson’s rise to prominence with the parallel story of his personal venality and moral failings. We learn that Stephenson was a charismatic salesman whose oratorical and organizational skills ballooned the Klan’s membership throughout the northern states. He sold a Klan that focused intently on cleansing American society of moral ills and those whom he blamed for fostering those ills: Catholics, Jews and Blacks. He exhorted Klan recruits and members to prohibit alcohol’s sale and consumption and to police their neighbors’ sexual activities. The Klan he led corrupted local and state law enforcement so that police and prosecutors bullied dissenters and targeted critics. Judges colluded to advance Klan interests. Stephenson thoroughly controlled the Republican Party in Indiana and other states.  

[Stephenson’s] followers readily overlooked his many moral flaws and hypocrisies to follow him down the path to what they saw as the restoration of a golden era of Christian America. 

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Protestant ministers joined the Klan enthusiastically and endorsed from their pulpits the messages the Klan wanted people to hear. The Klan would often show up at a church in mid-service, march up the aisle with a sack of money to donate to the congregation and retreat from the church, all in hooded anonymity.  

Stephenson himself embodied many of the dangers that he railed against. He married, abused and then abandoned two wives. All the while that Stephenson championed a return to moral greatness, he held alcohol-fueled parties at his mansion and assaulted women to whom he felt sexually attracted. 

As he rose in power in the northern Klan he targeted a number of young women. He often promised marriage as he forced himself on them, in the back of his cars or in various apartments and hotels. He sometimes got caught, literally with his pants down and sometimes by police, but always bluffed or bullied his way out of the situation. Many of the police had joined the Klan and were receptive to his explanations or succumbed to his threats. He intimidated his female victims against filing charges or going public. Nobody would believe them, he warned.  

Republican leaders feared criticizing the Klan in public and refused to denounce their extralegal activities. What did the excesses matter in service to such a righteous cause?

But then it all came crashing down. Some critics had begun to weaken the Klan a bit, through such tactics as publishing local Klan membership lists and railing against their extralegal bullying. A group of students at Notre Dame in South Bend actually fought back against a group of Klansmen who had gathered to intimidate the Catholic students. (Their physical resistance may even have been the origin of the Fighting Irish nickname.) But the real blow came from a young woman whom Stephenson had ravaged.

Madge Oberholtzer lived with her parents just down the street from Stephenson’s mansion. She graduated from Butler College and exemplified the 1920s « new woman » in many ways. She did not necessarily support the Klan’s aims, but she worried that Republican budget cuts imperiled her state librarian job and that only Stephenson might save it. She knew well that he controlled the state legislature and the governor.

The price Oberholtzer had to pay was to go on a number of dinner dates with Stephenson and then, at his insistence, come to his house late one night. Stephenson professed his love for Oberholtzer and forced her to accompany him and two bodyguards on a train headed for Chicago. When she resisted, he raped her on the train. Stephenson also beat her and bit her body in multiple places. In the midst of this multiple-day ordeal, she managed to consume poison. 

She suffered tremendous pain, feared that Stephenson would escape responsibility and sought to end her life. Stephenson eventually brought her home, denied any knowledge of her struggles and accused her angry father of trying to extort thousands of dollars from him with a « fictional » story of rape. Stephenson explained to his supporters that his political enemies invented the charges to undermine his important work of restoring America to its greatness.  

But Madge Oberholtzer prevailed. 

A brave prosecutor sought to convict Stephenson even as Klansmen threatened his life and his family. A local judge allowed the prosecutor to use Oberholtzer’s deathbed testimony against Stephenson and an Indiana jury found him guilty of murder. 

Stephenson’s salacious and malicious behavior helped to undermine the Klan in Indiana and other states. It lost its popular fervor and its grip on the Republican Party. But not before it spearheaded through the U.S. Congress legislation that closed off immigration from largely Catholic and Jewish areas in eastern and southern Europe, established a national prohibition on the sale of alcohol and enacted numerous state and local laws that restricted Catholic, Jewish and Black residents from living freely in those locales.  

Readers will likely see in the book’s many additional details that I have not conveyed here even more parallels to developments today. Egan conveys deftly the dramatic narrative of D.C. Stephenson’s rise and fall and the power he had to captivate many Americans who feared their decline from cultural and political dominance. White Protestant fears did not inevitably turn to hateful attacks on religious and racial minorities; that outcome depended a good deal on Stephenson’s masterful manipulation. 

But Stephenson did not have to work very hard. His followers readily overlooked his many moral flaws and hypocrisies to follow him down the path to what they saw as the restoration of a golden era of Christian America. Those views did not evaporate with Stephenson’s fall from grace. As Egan suggests, they have once more percolated to the surface among those convinced to make America great again.

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Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time: Awesome faith

Jesuit Fr. John Foley, one of the St. Louis Jesuits of liturgical music fame, composed « Who Has Known » based on today’s second reading. This song contemplates God’s inscrutable judgments and unsearchable ways via the mystery of the Incarnation. The reverent words and mellow music conspire to help us approach the word of God, the Eucharist and our brothers and sisters with awe, as a mystery of revelation.  

In today’s first reading, Isaiah prophesies that God will depose an unworthy leader. When he depicts a different, worthy leader, he describes someone as committed as a parent to provide for the total well-being of the people. Such loving dedication is what gives this leader the « power of the keys, » the authority/ability to help the people flourish by providing opportunities and prohibiting harmful behaviors. The exercise of this nurturing guidance gives stability to everyone blessed by the influence of such servant-leaders. Isaiah gives us the sense that leaders chosen by God inspire reverence and show it to others.

These ideas provide the background music to today’s Gospel — an incident we might see as another rendition of the call of Peter.  

This scene opens with the most important, intimate, and serious question one person can ever ask another: « Who do you say that I am? » The disciples couldn’t dodge the question with an indirect, « They say … » So, Peter took the risk and blurted out what they had been thinking and hoping:  « You are the Christ. »

That was no simple statement. Although he surely didn’t understand all its ramifications, calling Jesus « the Christ » entailed a commitment as radical as any vow. It’s as strong a statement as, « Yes, I will marry you, » or « I am consecrating my whole life to this. » Peter’s confession that Jesus was God’s Son, implied a promise to follow, to listen, to obey Jesus as one would obey God alone. His statement indicated that absolutely nothing in the world could take precedence over his response to what Jesus would ask of him.

Of course, Peter did not fulfill his promise immediately or flawlessly. He continued to dispute Jesus’ predictions about suffering, he wanted to put limits on forgiveness, he bragged and argued with other disciples. Matthew and Mark probably summed up Peter’s discipleship with the sentence, « Peter followed at a distance » (Mark 14:54, Matthew 26:58). But the important point was not the distance, but the following. Peter took the risk over and over. He had committed himself by saying, « You are the Christ, » and he strove to live that commitment for the rest of his life.  

Upon hearing him, Jesus responded, « How blessed you are, Peter! This is not something you could figure out on your own. » Peter did not figure it out alone and he could not live it out alone. His religious heritage, his relationship with Jesus, his prayer, the companionship of the other disciples — all these people and experiences were included in God’s revelation to him. All of them enabled him to keep growing into the commitment he had professed.

It seems that Jesus chose Peter, not for what he could accomplish or for his wisdom or strength, but for his capacity for metanoia, his willing ability to change and learn, to cultivate an ever-larger vision. Peter’s faith allowed him to grow into his commitment and that faith is the rock Jesus chose as the foundation of his church. Peter’s faith allowed him to weep for betraying Jesus: Knowing his need for conversion, he could be a worthy leader, the keeper of the keys for a frail church.  

Jesus’ question was at least the second time Jesus called Peter and the disciples to their vocation.  By professing that Jesus was the Christ, they pledged to follow him. They would not do it flawlessly, but they would continue on the way, faithful enough to get up and keep going after falling.

So much for Peter and company. What do we say when Christ asks, « Who do you say that I am? »  

Every Sunday we profess the creed. Is it possible that its philosophical and historical language cushion us from the radicality of Peter’s simple, commitment-compelling statement? Do we ever feel implicated by what we are saying? Is there any statement in the creed that feels so risky that we think twice before saying it? What phrase could move us to awe?

All the components of today’s liturgy — from readings to the creed to the command, « Do this in memory of me » — conspire to shake us up. Today, we find ourselves called to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. Happily, we don’t need to figure it out alone, nor live it alone. God’s revelation comes through community, word and sacrament. In that, we can believe, and that’s awesome.

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Russian occupiers seize Roman Catholic church in Skadovsk in eastern Ukraine

Russian occupiers launched an attack Aug. 22 on St. Teresa of the Child of Jesus Roman Catholic Church in the town of Skadovsk, located in the Kherson region in eastern Ukraine, Bishop Stanislav Szyrokoradiuk of Odessa-Simferopol confirmed on Facebook.

« A group of armed special forces, cloaked in masks and wielding weapons, encircled the Roman Catholic chapel, » the bishop said, describing the dramatic event.

With determined force, they « broke down the door and broke into the chapel and began a search, » Szyrokoradiuk said.

Russians, who are occupying the region, declared that their actions constituted a deliberate operation designed to counteract terrorist activities. Russia occupies Crimea and parts of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, Mykolayiv and Zaporizhzhya oblasts, or regions.

« Fortunately, there were no people in the chapel at the time, otherwise they all would have been captured as terrorists, » stated the bishop.

« Access to the chapel is denied to anyone, and the searches are ongoing. Strangely, they also broke windows, » Szyrokoradiuk said.

« I believe they will find whatever they want there: weapons, explosives, you name it, » the bishop wrote, citing a common practice of the occupier — to brand religious premises as places of « terrorism » or « drug dealing » only to seize property and make the faithful unable to access.

Szyrokoradiuk also said in his Facebook post that Russians dubbed the parish pastor as « the main drug lord, falsely putting him on the wanted list. » The priest left for Poland before the start of the war in February 2022. Another priest is now in charge of the parish and the bishop said he forbade him to go to the church as he would « simply be arrested and imprisoned. »

« As we can see, the methods of the KGB haven’t changed, » the bishop said, remembering the Soviet persecution of both Roman and Ukrainian Catholic churches under communism.

« Therefore, I ask everyone for prayers, so that the good Lord may shorten the days of the devil’s actions and the days of suffering for our people, » emphasized the bishop.

Parishioners previously gathered in the church for prayer, but now they no longer have such an opportunity. The chapel is closed and no one is allowed in, the bishop said, asking for prayers for Catholics, who are being persecuted by the Russian occupiers.

Skadovsk has been occupied almost since the beginning of the Russian invasion. Russian troops entered the city at the beginning of March 2022.

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Catholic bishops, faith leaders appeal for debt relief to help African countries

Ahead of major meetings of world leaders in September, such as the Africa Climate Summit, the G20 New Delhi Summit and the 78th session of the U.N. General Assembly, Catholic bishops and faith leaders in Africa are calling for debt relief for the continent to give Africa a « life line » to escape the multiple crises plaguing its population.

Amid discontent linked to the rising cost of food and living and growing inflation in Africa, economic burdens have been frustrating development, swelling poverty, and triggering conflicts and protests in some of the countries, according to the leaders.

The keyword for them to fix many pressing needs of African people is debt, or rather its reduction.

External debt in Africa stands at a total of $1.1 trillion, with 25 of the countries hard hit by serious debt crises. « External debt » is the portion of a country’s debt borrowed from foreign lenders, including commercial banks, governments or international financial institutions.

African countries have been borrowing to finance their national budgets (debt financing) but have been incurring an exorbitant interest rate in the process of repayment, frustrating their efforts to achieve the global sustainable development goals and climate goals, according to faith leaders.

The leaders are confident that debt reduction would come as a relief and benefit millions of ordinary people.

« We reassert that … the unified voice of African faith leaders emerges with unwavering clarity and determination, » said Bishop John Obala Owaa of Ngong as he read the leaders’ statement Aug. 8, a document that pointed out « how Africa can emerge better from today’s multiple crises. »

« Our respective Holy Scriptures emphasize the pursuit of justice, guiding us in our actions and decisions, » the bishop said on behalf of Christians, Muslims and members of African traditional religions participating in the Nairobi meeting.

« We urge the establishment of a debt reduction process that allows borrowers to quickly reduce debt payments to protect crucial development and climate investments, » the leaders stated.

Hosted by Caritas Africa, Jesuit Justice and Ecology Network and the Jubilee USA Network, interfaith leaders gathered at the Elysian Resort in Nairobi Aug. 6-9 to discuss achieving sustainable development and support Africa’s recovery.

The leaders stressed that right now most African countries are emerging from the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Their food systems have been disrupted by droughts linked to climate change, armed conflicts and more recently the war in Ukraine, which has destabilized food imports supply chains.

« Given that over 45% of Africa’s debt is held by private creditors, financial centers governing these contracts must pass laws ensuring these creditors participate in debt relief, » said Owaa.

In the 1990s, faith leaders were among those who lined up in the Jubilee Movement to push for « breaking the chains of debt » in developing countries, the leaders recalled, but they also are worried that after more than 30 years, the debt crisis had only intensified.

In 2005, a push by the Jubilee 2000, a movement in over 40 countries that called for debt cancellation in poor countries, resulted in a debt cancellation agreement made in London by the finance ministers from the Group of 7 to cancel $130 billion of debt for 36 countries, most recently Chad in May 2015. The G7 countries are Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States; additionally, the European Union is a « non-enumerated member. »

The cancellation was met with celebrations and resulted in poverty reduction in the African countries, but the faith leaders argue that the « crippling burden of unsustainable debts persists » in the countries, since the challenges of international and domestic finance systems have not been addressed.

« As we approach a new Jubilee year in 2025, that promise remains unfulfilled, » said Owaa, adding that « the stakes of this debt crisis are much higher than before the last Jubilee year. … We need large investments to save the planet that sustains life in Africa and elsewhere, during a window that is rapidly closing. »

According to analysts, in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, it reduced economic activities while increasing government spending. This also slowed down the governments’ investments in key areas such as education, health and infrastructure, as it also worsened the debt burden.

« One way to support African countries is to provide debt relief, grants, and concessional loans. This would help to ease the debt burden and enable African countries to invest in critical areas such as health care, education, and infrastructure development, » Fr. Charles Chilufya, a priest working with the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar as the director of the Justice and Ecology Office, told the annual spring meetings of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank Group and the IMF in April.

« Additionally, addressing the root causes of the debt crisis, such as the unfair global financial architecture, corruption and weak governance, will be crucial in preventing a recurrence of the crisis, » Chilufya added.

At the same time, the faith leaders warn that corruption within the African countries’ governments, leading to misuse of funds, has been exacerbating the debt crisis.

« To avert recurring debt cycles, we, the faith leaders, urge countries to adopt laws and practices that advocate responsible lending and borrowing, » Owaa said.

The leaders are preparing to ask the heads of states and finance ministers attending key international meetings in September and the World Bank and IMF annual meetings in Marrakesh, Morocco, in October to take actions that can help Africa tackle its crises.

But they also want the African governments to take action on corruption and theft of public funds so that public finances can be used to address the needs of citizens.

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Pope asks renewed prayers for Ukraine on eve of its Independence Day

Acknowledging Ukraine’s celebration of Independence Day Aug. 24, Pope Francis pleaded with thousands of visitors at his weekly general audience to keep praying for peace in the country.

Noting that Aug. 24 also is the feast of St. Bartholomew, the apostle, the pope entrusted to him « dear Ukraine, so harshly tried by the war. »

But then departing from his prepared text and looking directly at the crowd in the Vatican audience hall, he said: « Brothers and sisters, let’s pray for our Ukrainian brothers and sisters who are suffering so much. The war is cruel. So many children disappeared, so many people dead. »

According to the Ukrainian government’s « Children of War » website, 503 children had been killed as of Aug. 23 and more than 19,500 children have been forcibly taken to Russia.

« Please, » the pope said, « pray. Do not forget tormented Ukraine. »

Russia launched its large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The country had declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

In his weekly video message, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kyiv-Halych, head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, said that while Ukrainians « give thanks to the Lord God for the precious gift of freedom, » in the context of war « we are gaining a deeper understanding of the meaning of freedom, of what it entails to be free individuals, and recognizing that in order to guarantee the right of existence for the Ukrainian people, it is essential to have our own state. »

« The main pillars for building this state include respect for human dignity and the preservation of freedom, » the archbishop said.

« Freedom is a spiritual category. Being free is not limited only to escaping oppression or foreign domination, » he said. « True freedom involves being free for something. We recognize that the highest form of freedom is manifested in love, in the act of sacrificing oneself for God and neighbor. »