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It seemed that 12 years of a…

It seemed that 12 years of a bloody war should have been enough tragedy for the people of Aleppo and other Syrian cities. But in the early hours of Feb. 6, a devastating earthquake struck northwestern Syria, killing 1,500 as of 5 a.m. Eastern on Feb. 7.

In southern Turkey and Syria combined, the death toll reached more than 5,000 as of early morning hours on Feb. 7 and is expected to rise as people are still trapped under the rubble.

In Aleppo, people are trying to pick up the pieces after the shock of the catastrophe.

« It’s a desperate humanitarian situation, » Chaldean Catholic Bishop Antoine Audo of Aleppo, and former president of Caritas Syria, told OSV News.

Even before the catastrophe, there were electricity and fuel shortages in Syria’s second-largest city of more than 2 million people.

« There is no electricity, there is no fuel, the winter is very harsh, and it is cold inside and outside. There is so much poverty, » Audo said, underlining that « on top of all that, we have to face this earthquake. It’s not easy. The situation is really terrible. »

By early morning on Feb. 6, following the earthquake, the bishopry (bishop’s residence where offices are often located) was hosting about 50 people, including children: « We prayed together, and we had some tea. »

Audo explained that people who live on the above-ground floors in apartment buildings do not feel safe. « It is dangerous, especially if there is another earthquake or aftershocks. » In fact, a second earthquake struck early afternoon on Feb. 6.

The Chaldean Catholic bishop said the churches of different rites are organizing centers to provide food and water. « This is the first step of help in this tragedy, » he said.

After almost 12 years of a deadly war in Syria, the earthquake came on top of the suffering its people had already experienced.

« I am from Aleppo, and it’s the first time I experienced a dangerous tragedy of an earthquake, » said the 77-year-old bishop. « I thought it was the end for me. »

Maronite Bishop Joseph Tobji of Aleppo referred to the earthquake as « the biggest terror. »

« I didn’t experience anything like this in all the years of war, » Tobji told OSV News. « People are shocked and crying, » he said.

« We are welcoming people in the bishopry, in the cathedral and in the parishes, » he said, adding that they are « buying food to help the people. » By the afternoon of Feb. 6, the Maronite Cathedral of Saint Elijah in Aleppo was hosting around 150 people.

« Our people have suffered for 12 years now because of the war, because of the sanctions. I have always pleaded to the world to have mercy on our people. »

Sandy Agob, a 29-year-old Maronite Catholic from Aleppo, told OSV News that since 4 a.m., when the earthquake struck, they were « living in horror. »

« I’m so scared, but thank God we are okay, » said Agob, who lives with her parents in a ground-floor apartment. « Today was the worst day ever. Worse even than the war. You realize that in a single moment, there’s just a thread between your life and death, » she added.

Shaken by the earthquake, Agob shared what she told her parents immediately after the tragic shock: « Why do people (in the world) have problems with each other, while life is so fragile that it can be just taken away in seconds? »

Sleeping at the time of the earthquake, Agob said she heard her parents shouting to come to them and that in their apartment, « everything was moving and broken. »

The first quake, which she said lasted four minutes, « was so long. » They « couldn’t stand up, so we sat on the floor » in the entryway to the bathroom, trying to keep safe, Agob said.

« I kept praying, praying, praying, holding a picture of Jesus and Mary. Thank God, He protected us, » she said. Hearing the crashing sounds of stones falling outside, Agob recounted that she thought: « We are going to be killed. »

« But God saved us, » she said.

After five minutes, they felt another quake, not as strong, lasting about 30 seconds.

She and her mother dressed quickly, her father still in his pajamas. « I thought we might never come back to our home » if it got destroyed. Grabbing their important documents, they rushed to their car and drove to an area not surrounded by buildings, staying there until 7 a.m., then returning home.

She noted that her friend, who lives on the sixth floor of a building, in which the earthquake was felt even stronger, ran outside in the rain without any shoes.

By 8 a.m., Agob arrived at the bank where she works. « I thought, ‘let’s go to work, maybe it’s a safer place,’ but it was not » — and by 1:30 p.m., she was back home.

On her way to the bank, Agob saw demolished buildings, fallen balconies and the collapsed minaret of a mosque. « I saw people running, on foot, and driving in their cars, » she said, recounting the frantic reaction all around her.

What makes people even more fearful, she said, is the fragility of Aleppo’s buildings after enduring years of shelling and bombing. « We’re afraid that our buildings can’t support anymore from this earthquake. »

While the power in Aleppo typically comes on for two hours a day, Agob’s family has had no electricity in the last three days. Typically households use kerosene heaters in the city but amid the fuel shortage, her parents were rarely able to use their own in the last days to even slightly take the chill out of their home. « We wear many layers of clothes, » she pointed out.

« I really don’t know why God is testing us with this earthquake, because we had enough problems in the war, » Agob said of the catastrophe. « We hope to live peacefully and not to be afraid of losing our life, » she added.

The Middle East Council of Churches (MECC) held an emergency meeting in Beirut on Feb. 6 to discuss the current situation and how to respond to the earthquake’s repercussions.

« We call on the international community and the international ecumenical family to provide urgent emergency aid to the region, in coordination with the Middle East Council of Churches, the Churches and their affiliated institutions, » the MECC said in a statement.

« We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity, » the MECC implored.

Syria has been under international sanctions since the beginning of the war. Since the uprisings began in March 2011, « the U.S. government has intensely pursued calibrated sanctions to deprive the regime of the resources it needs to continue violence against civilians and to pressure the Syrian regime to allow for a democratic transition as the Syrian people demand, » the U.S. State Department stated on its website.

The Pontifical Mission Societies in the United States has opened the Earthquake Aid for Turkey and Syria Fund « to provide immediate relief to the families that suffered catastrophic loss due to the earthquake that shook Turkey and Syria Monday morning, » the organization said in a statement.

Proceeds from the fund will support missionary priests, religious women and lay missionaries on the ground providing assistance to those impacted by the disaster, defined by Audo as a « tremendous bomb. »

« While it is too early to know the full extent of the devastation wrought by the earthquake, experience tells us that the days ahead will be critical, » Msgr. Kieran Harrington, national director of The Pontifical Mission Societies USA, said in a statement.

« Missionaries are ready to help, and the national director in Turkey is already working with local NGOs to ensure that every dollar sent goes directly to those most impacted by this tragedy, » he added.

The Pontifical Mission Societies USA will distribute grants through Catholic dioceses and trusted partner organizations to ensure that the funds fully benefit the immediate and ongoing needs of communities impacted by the devastating earthquake.

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Pencil Preaching for Tuesday,…

“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition” (Mark 7:7).

Gen 1:20—2:4a; Mk 7:1-13

In today’s gospel passage from Mark, Jesus challenges his religious opponents for insisting on ritual hand washing and the purification of cups and dishes while neglecting the deeper command to be pure of heart. He also criticizes them for excusing themselves from the commandment to honor and support their parents by claiming that they were dedicated to God.  

Jesus’ deepest criticism was that his opponents were neglecting the first commandment of love in favor of their own expanding body of man-made rules. Jesus was not alone in his emphasis on the commandment of love. This debate within the religious community was best answered by the revered Rabbi Hillel, who, it is claimed, when challenged to recite the Law while standing on one leg, simply said, « That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; now go and learn. »

If we sort out essential commandments from church rules, we encounter a long history of reformers arguing for essentials against traditionalists, who insisted on institutional rules and their own theological systems above all else. 

The debate over the church’s all-male, celibate clergy is one of these issues. Though a chronic shortage of priests has meant that believers often do not receive the Eucharist or other sacraments, alternative solutions are rejected. These include the ordination of women based on Jesus’ own inclusion of women among his disciples and Paul’s witness to female leadership in ministry and house churches, and the basic principle of equality for women.   

The current criticism by some in the hierarchy of Pope Francis’ statement on decriminalizing homosexuality or his emphasis on pastoral accompaniment in the case of Catholics in second marriages seems more about enforcing legal standards than acknowledging real suffering with compassion. The pope has angered some critics by simply suggesting that ordinary Catholics are capable of discernment and examining their own situations conscientiously. Priests should be part of that process but without needing to control it. 

All of us are asked to determine what is essential and most important in our lives. Do we insist on our human rules and traditions at the expense of being patient and loving with others in their struggles? Are we living in fear of God’s judgment instead of opening our hearts to God’s mercy?  Jesus came to liberate us from both fear and legalistic thinking. If we do our best and concentrate on love, are we not fulfilling the whole law?  

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In the weeks ahead, leading to Lent and Holy Week, many of the scripture readings will reflect the political and religious divisions and uncertainty that roiled Judaism and the earliest decades of Christianity. Our reflections will take into consideration that the texts contain language that historically served to foster ugly stereotypes and fuel ancient hostility toward Jews. The Catholic Church took a huge step toward correcting those perceptions in the Vatican II document Nostra Aetate. More than 50 years after the promulgation of that document, the church is still wrestling with how to interpret our sacred texts in light of new research and understanding. A good point of reference is a 2019 talk by Pope Francis to the Pontifical Biblical Institute as it addressed the topic, “Jesus and the Pharisees: An Interdisciplinary Reappraisal.” He spoke of the need to “find ways to overcome ancient prejudices.”

https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2019/may/documents/papa-francesco_20190509_pont-istitutobiblico.html

— Provided by Tom Roberts, former executive editor of NCR    

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In a press conference aboard the…

ON BOARD THE PAPAL PLANE FROM SOUTH SUDAN — Pope Francis on Feb. 5 said the recent death of retired Pope Benedict XVI has been « instrumentalized » by those in the Catholic Church seeking to score points against the current papacy and using the late pope’s death to serve their own agendas.

« Those people are without ethics, » said Francis en route back to Rome following his first international trip after the Dec. 31 death of the late pope emeritus. « They are people who belong to a party, not to the church. »

While Francis didn’t name names, over the last month a number of vocal critics of Francis’ pastoral priorities — including Benedict’s longtime personal secretary, Archbishop Georg Ganswein — have given interviews and published books claiming that in retirement, Benedict was embittered by certain decisions taken by Francis.

Francis dismissed those reports as fabricated and said that such individuals were serving their own agenda, using a colloquial Italian expression for those seeking to divert a community’s water supply solely for their own purposes.

Just days after Benedict’s death, Ganswein published a tell-all memoir claiming that the retired pope was heartbroken by Francis’ 2021 decision to restrict the celebration of the Latin Mass and was at odds with Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which offered a cautious opening to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. One week later, following the unexpected death of Australian Cardinal George Pell, a long-time ally of Benedict, it was revealed that Pell had been the author of an anonymous March 2022 memo labeling the Francis papacy a « disaster » and out-of-sync with the papacies of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Francis, however, told reporters on the plane that he consulted regularly with Benedict and that the two were on the same page. He went on to share an anecdote of an unnamed theologian who went to Benedict with a complaint over Francis’ support for civil unions. Francis said that Benedict tapped several noted theologian-cardinals to examine the complaint. 

« They explained it, and so the story ended, » said Francis, adding that Benedict was not saddened by decisions he had taken over the last 10 years as pope. 

The pope’s remarks came at the end of his six-day African visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, where he was joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Moderator of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields. All three church leaders traveled to the South Sudanese capital of Juba Feb. 3-5 as part of a grand effort to shore up the war-ravaged country’s delicate peace process.

During a first-of-its-kind, on-board joint press conference, the leaders of the three Christian churches reiterated their shared desire for an end to violence in South Sudan, but also offered a rare and united front among the three major Christian leaders against condemning LGBTQ persons, with all three strongly voicing their opposition to the criminalization of homosexuality.

Francis repeated his remarks from a high-profile Jan. 25 interview in which he backed the decriminalization of homosexuality, saying that Catholic leaders should work for the repeal of such « unjust » laws, including in Africa.

« People with homosexual tendencies are children of God, » said Francis when asked his reaction to families, including those in Congo and South Sudan, who ostracize their LGBTQ family members, often citing their Christian faith to support their position.  

« God is walking with them, » the pope added. « To condemn someone like this is a sin. »

Despite significant differences among the three churches on homosexuality, all three offered a forceful defense of gay persons. 

Greenshields, whose churches offers gay blessings, said that « nowhere in my reading of the four gospels do I see Jesus turning anyone away. »

Welby said he heartily agreed with the pope’s words, adding that the Church of England had twice passed resolutions supporting the decriminalization of homosexuality, but added that, regretfully, they had not changed many people’s minds.  

The archbishop’s remarks come ahead of a closely-watched meeting later this week where Anglican leaders will discuss the recent controversial announcement by the country’s bishops’ that they would not back same-sex marriage but would approve the blessing of civil unions.

Reflecting back on the first stop of his visit in the Congo — a nation with rich mineral resources, yet some of the worst poverty rates in the world — Francis repeated his condemnation of nations that exploit and plunder Congo’s minerals, taking advantage of its near-permanent state of instability and fueling war among the country’s more than 100 armed rebel groups.

Francis said the trafficking in arms was the « biggest plague » and that he was once told that if arms sales ended, it would bring a quick end to the world’s famines.

Welby echoed the pope’s sentiments, saying that Congo should not be « the playground of the great powers. » In recent years, superpowers like China, Russia and the United States have been in fierce competition over Congo’s underground treasures, such as cobalt, lithium and copper, in a race to transition towards green energy.

Considering its vast natural resources, Welby said Congo « should be one of the richest countries on the planet, » and be able to provide aid to the rest of Africa.

When asked what his message might be to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his country’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, the pope again stressed the importance of dialogue and said he remained open to meeting with Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Welby, who visited Ukraine in late November, offered a blunter assessment, saying that ending the war is « in the hands of President Putin. »

Both church leaders emphasized the need to not to forget other raging conflicts in the world — including Myanmar, Somalia, Nigeria and, of course, South Sudan.

Prior to leaving South Sudan on Sunday, Feb. 5, Francis celebrated Mass for an estimated 100,000 participants, telling them that Christians can « make a decisive contribution to changing history » if they overcome their chronic divisions and stop « pitting tribes and ethnic groups against one another. »

The pope encouraged the large crowd to be people « capable of building good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice. »

En route back to Rome, the 86-year-old Francis, who continues to struggle with mobility issues, said that despite a bothersome knee, he has no plans to slow down on papal travel.  

The pope told reporters that plans are in the works for a trip to Marseilles, France at the end of September, where Francis has been invited to address a meeting of bishops and mayors from the Mediterranean. Directly following that meeting, Francis said he may travel onward to Mongolia to visit the country’s tiny Catholic population.  

Francis also confirmed he plans to attend World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, in August and said he would like to visit India in 2024.

When asked if they would be willing to undertake another voyage with Francis, both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator said they would be delighted to do so if the pope deemed it useful.

Greenshields, however, noted that the term of the moderator is only for one year, after which, he said, « a very capable woman will be taking over, » Sally Foster Fulton. The moderator’s reply was met with applause by some on board the pope’s plane traveling with its nearly all-male Vatican entourage.

« Certainly this is the best airline I’ve ever flown on, » quipped Welby

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« Those who claim to be believers…

Pope Francis on Feb. 4 urged South Sudan’s diverse Christian community not to be overcome by ethnic or tribal conflict that have defined the young nation’s early history, but to see their shared faith as means of building a lasting peace.    

« Those who claim to be believers should have nothing more to do with a culture based on the spirit of vengeance, » said the pope, encouraging more than 50,000 people gathered in the nation’s capital to commit to « spreading Jesus’ way of non-violence. »

The Gospel, he said, « contradicts every tribal understanding of religion. »

Francis’ remarks came during an ecumenical prayer service at the John Garang Mausoleum Square here in Juba, alongside archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and moderator of the Church of Scotland Iain Greenshields, as the three men continued their historic Feb. 3-5 « pilgrimage of peace, » seeking to shore up unity in the overwhelmingly Christian nation.

In separate prayer services with their respective congregations on the morning of Feb. 4, the three church leaders shared similar messages that all believers, regardless of their tribe or ethnic group, must come together if the war-ravaged country wants to overcome years of incalcitrant divisions.

At a joint appearance at the presidential palace Feb. 3, Francis and the ecumenical leaders who have been intensely involved in holding together the country’s fragile peace agreement issued a stern warning to the country’s political leaders that history would judge them if they fail to work together and bring about peace. 

As they gathered together here Feb. 4, Francis offered a similar message to all the country’s Christians, reminding them it was Jesus’ « heartfelt prayer » that all believers may be one.

« What Jesus teaches us is clear: we are to love everyone, since everyone is loved as a child of our common Father in heaven, » the pope said. « The love of Christians is not only for those close to us, but for everyone, for in Jesus each person is our neighbor, our brother or sister — even our enemies. »

Some participants walked 93 miles over nine days to be here for the pope’s visit. Others, who live within the capital, spoke of the long hours it took them to reach the event by foot, given the city’s lack of roads and infrastructure. Even so, at the joint prayer service, rosary-clutching men and women were seated alongside Anglicans and other Protestant Christians in joint solidarity representing what Welby described as the « fellowship of believers. »

‘The love of Christians is not only for those close to us, but for everyone, for in Jesus each person is our neighbor, our brother or sister — even our enemies.’
—Pope Francis

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« The Gospel must not be just a beautiful religious philosophy, but a prophecy that becomes reality in history, » the pope said. « Let us work for peace by weaving and mending, not by cutting and tearing. Let us follow Jesus, and in following him, let us walk together on the path to peace. »

After decades of tumult, the Christian residents of South Sudan broke away from the Muslim-majority nation of Sudan, declaring independence in 2011. The new country quickly became engulfed in a bloody civil war among its more than 60 ethnic groups. 

Over the last decade, the country’s Christian leaders have been repeatedly praised for transcending the conflict in an effort to keep the peace, though tensions stemming from ethnic divides have begun to emerge, fracturing their historically strong alliance.

While Catholics represent the majority of South Sudan’s Christian population, they are represented by only 7 bishops, compared to some 61 Anglican bishops throughout the vast nation, all of whom have historically coordinated well together to ensure the new country’s fragile peace.

The fact that South Sudan’s president Salva Kiir is Catholic and his major political rival, Riek Machar, is Presbyterian (or Church of Scotland), only underscores the need for unity among Christians if the country’s political leaders are going to peacefully coexist, according to a number of frontline workers in the country.  

Ahead of the trip, Maryknoll lay missioner Gabe Hurrish told NCR that the South Sudanese people need to see the example of the country’s religious leaders overcoming the divisions that have wracked the rest of the nation.

« The leaders of this poor ravaged country have let down their people, » said Hurrish, who works in the Kuron Peace Village on the southeast border of South Sudan. « We pray for these leaders as they are losing their souls. »

Religious leaders, he said, by contrast, can witness to the fact that it is a Christian duty to live in harmony, whether at the grassroots level or among the country’s political class. 

Francis echoed that sentiment during his remarks at the prayer service, pleading that « the tribalism and the partisan spirit that fuel acts of violence in this country not impair relationships between the various confessions. »

« On the contrary, » he continued, « may the witness of unity among believers overflow to the people as a whole. »                       

‘The future cannot lie in refugee camps’

Before the ecumenical prayer service, the Christian leaders met with some 2,000 internally displaced people from all corners of the country, many of whom have lived in refugee camps for 10 years. 

More than 4.3 million people in South Sudan are estimated to need humanitarian assistance — the majority of whom are displaced or refugees.

« Great numbers of children born in recent years have known only the reality of camps for displaced persons, » said Francis. « They have no memory of what it means to have a home; they are losing their connection with their native land, their roots and their traditions. »                             

Despite this grim history, Francis told them to look ahead to a different, brighter tomorrow.

« The future cannot lie in refugee camps, » he said. 

As a sign of their shared commitment to the country, Francis, Welby and Greenshields concluded the gathering with a joint benediction over the country’s displaced persons, blessing to victims of the worst refugee crisis on the African continent.

Precious Blood Sr. Mumbi Kigutha, president of Friends in Solidarity with South Sudan, an organization representing more than 400 religious congregations with an aim of responding to the immediate needs of the country, praised the way the three ecumenical leaders elevated the role of the country’s young people, women and civil society leaders as essential to working alongside political and religious leaders in securing the country’s future during the second day of the high-profile visit.

« In a country as young as South Sudan, where the church has had a huge role in building up the country, there’s a danger of falling into clerical or patriarchal patterns, » she told NCR. « The country is so vast and the religious cannot do everything. »

Committing to training young leaders while the country is still in its infancy, Kigutha said, will help South Sudan avoid « the patterns we’ve seen so many African countries where the power, the privilege and the decision-making lie at the hands of the few, but lies in the hands of the people. »

Pope to clergy: Get your hands dirty

Pope Francis began his first full morning here by meeting with South Sudan’s bishops, priests and religious men and women in Juba’s St. Theresa Cathedral, where he encouraged them to remain committed to ministries of service and to avoid the temptation of seeing themselves as above their flock.

« We are not tribal chieftains, but compassionate and merciful shepherds; not overlords, but servants who stoop to wash the feet of our brothers and sisters, » said the pope. « Not a worldly agency that administers earthly goods, but the community of God’s children. »

The pope encouraged them to be willing to get their hands dirty for the people they serve, including speaking out against injustice and violence.

« We must never exercise our ministry by chasing after religious or social prestige, but rather by walking in the midst of and alongside our people, learning to listen and to dialogue, cooperating as ministers with one another and with the laity, » said the pope.

During his final day here, Sunday, Feb. 5, Francis will celebrate a Mass expected to draw some of the largest crowds in the country’s history before he returns to Rome. 

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The Catholic Church in Germany has…

The Catholic Church in Germany has so far paid more than $43.5 million (40 million euros) to victims of sexual abuse, German Catholic KNA agency has reported.

The Independent Commission for Recognition Payment approved an average amount of $24,000 (22,150 euros) in 1,809 cases. The commission’s annual report was presented in Bonn Feb. 3. There have been a total of 1,839 applications from victims of sex abuse seeking compensation from the Catholic Church.

In 143 cases (about 8%), the commission ordered a payment of more than $54,300 (50,000 euros); in 24 cases (1%) more than $108,600 (100,000 euros). In almost 1,000 cases (54%), the approved amount was $16,300 (15,000 euros) or less, KNA reported.

Most of the applications — three out of four — came from men, and one in four were from women. However, KNA noted, 20 of the 24 payments over $108,600 went to women.

The panel classified nine cases as not plausible. For an additional 21 applications, payments were not awarded because these applications were withdrawn or because they involved multiple applications that were combined, the German Catholic news agency provided.

The Independent Commission for Recognition Payments, headed by lawyer Margarete Reske, formerly the presiding judge at the Cologne Higher Regional Court, has been operating since Jan. 1, 2021. It has 11 members — experts from various disciplines. They were proposed by a majority non-church body and appointed by the German Bishops’ Conference. The members freely make the decisions about applications and payment amounts, KNA reported.

In terms of dioceses, a particularly large number of applications were submitted last year from Cologne (52) and Muenster (51). Among the religious orders, the Salesians (16) and Redemptorists (15) had the most applications submitted.

According to Reske, the average waiting time for a claimant to receive payment is currently less than four months after the commission’s office has received an application, as reported by KNA.

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President Joe Biden delivered a…

President Joe Biden delivered a message of unity at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2, the first time the annual event has been held since its leadership and structure were overhauled to distance it from a controversial private religious group.

« In our politics and in our lives, we too often see each other as opponents and not competitors. We see each other as enemies, not neighbors, » Biden said. « And as tough as these times have been, if we look closer, we see the strength, the determination that has long defined America. »

The breakfast was held at the Capitol’s visitor center, and the auditorium’s 450 seats were packed with members of Congress, government officials and others.

Every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower has spoken at the breakfast, which in past years has been attended by thousands. For decades, the event was overseen by the International Foundation, a Christian organization that has drawn increasing scrutiny over the years.

Now the event is run by the National Prayer Breakfast Foundation, a new group led by former members of Congress. The International Foundation held its own event at a nearby hotel, where Biden’s speech was being watched remotely.

« Welcome to all 1,300, » Biden said, a reference to the size of the crowd at the other breakfast. It was his only acknowledgement during the public program to changes behind the scenes.

The event is designed to bring people together across partisan lines, and Biden sat next to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif. The two are beginning a showdown over whether to raise the country’s debt limit to avoid default.

« We had a good meeting yesterday, » Biden said of McCarthy, saying they would work to « treat each other with respect. »

Also present was Kari Lake, the Republican candidate for Arizona governor who lost her race in November but has refused to acknowledge her defeat. Biden has denounced election denial as a threat to American democracy.

Quoting Scripture, Biden said it was important to « love thy neighbor as thyself. »

« That’s the hardest one, I think, » he said. « At least it’s hardest here. It didn’t used to be as hard. I’ve been here a long time. But it seems to be getting harder. »

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Pencil Preaching for Thursday,…

“This child is destined for the rise and fall of many” (Luke 2:28).

The Feast of the Presentation of the Lord

Mal 3:1-4; Heb 2:14-18; Lk 2:22-40 or 2:22-32

The Feast of the Presentation is rich in many themes. Jesus is born among us, one of us, and he is subject to the law of Moses. Though he was God, he was ritually presented to God in the Temple according to the law. Years later, Jesus will be baptized in the Jordan, though he was without sin.  Mary, his mother, holy beyond ritual or protocol, also submits to the rite of purification 40 days after the birth of her son. 

While in the Temple, two elderly mystics who had been there most of their lives in expectation of the Messiah are alerted by the Holy Spirit to the presence of the child Jesus. Simeon takes the boy in his arms and prays in thanksgiving that he has lived to see the salvation God had promised.

Anna also blesses the child and tells everyone about him. This encounter gives continuity to the long history of salvation going all the way back to Abraham.  Jesus is the One they have been waiting for. It also echoes the importance and prayers of all senior believers who gather at daily Mass each morning around the world, the elders of the church and its source of wisdom. 

Jesus’ ministry will not be easy or without cost. Simeon proclaims that the child will be the cause of the rise and fall of many in Israel. Jesus will occasion the decisive challenge of faith for everyone.  He is God’s offer, and we will either receive or reject him.  Everything depends on this discernment and choice. 

Mary leads us in saying, “Yes, be it done unto me according to your Word.” She is the model for every disciple, and she will endure great suffering as she witnesses the rejection and passion of Jesus. Her passion, like his, will be the passage every disciple must make to complete their baptisms. We must die with Christ in order to rise with him. 

Let us take the occasion of this feast to present ourselves to the Lord: “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.” This prayer is all we need to position our lives to experience the full mystery of Jesus in the world with us. This is the joy of the Gospel. 

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Australian police plan to ask a…

Australian police plan to ask a judge to ban gay rights protesters from demonstrating outside the funeral of Cardinal George Pell in Sydney on Feb. 2 due to public safety concerns.

Pell, who was once considered the third-highest ranking cleric in the Vatican and spent more than a year in prison before his child abuse convictions were squashed in 2020, died in Rome this month at age 81.

The staunchly conservative church leader will lie in St. Mary’s Cathedral starting Feb. 1 and will be interred at the cathedral after a funeral Mass the following day.

The New South Wales Police Force said on Jan. 31 it has rejected an application from Sydney-based gay rights group Community Action for Rainbow Rights for a permit to protest outside the cathedral on Feb. 2 due to safety concerns.

It said police Commissioner Karen Webb will apply to the New South Wales Supreme Court on Feb. 1 to prohibit the rally.

« The NSW Police Force recognizes and supports the rights of individuals and groups to exercise their rights of free speech and peaceful assembly, however, the first priority is always the safety of the wider community, »police said in a statement.

Pell was an outspoken and polarizing figure throughout his church career and remains divisive in his native Australia in death.

The protest group has posted on social media its intention to go ahead with what it calls its « Pell go to Hell! » protest.

« We need everybody to come out and protest on Thursday. We can’t let the police get away with denying us our right to protest this bigot’s funeral! » the group said.

As archbishop of Melbourne and later archbishop of Sydney, Pell repeatedly refused to give Communion to gay activists wearing rainbow-colored sashes.

« God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, and important consequences follow from this, » Pell told a St. Mary’s congregation in 2002 after he first refused Communion to a gay activist in Sydney.

Pell was also a lightning rod for disagreements over whether the Catholic Church has been properly held to account for past child sex abuse.

Pell and his supporters believed he was scapegoated for all the crimes of the Australian Catholic Church’s botched response to clergy sexual abuse.

Protesters plan to tie ribbons in memory of child abuse victims to the cathedral’s fence on Feb. 1 as thousands of mourners are expected to gather to see the cardinal’s coffin.

« Ribbon tying on church fences has become a visual symbol of those who have suffered abuse at the hands of the church and reminder that these crimes go largely unpunished, » activists posted.

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Wanting peace by working for…

Wanting peace by working for justice « is a hard road to walk, my brothers and sisters, » Sr. Patricia Chappell told attendees at the 2023 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering in Washington in the opening plenary session Jan. 28.

« We can no longer claim to be innocent bystanders, » said Chappell, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, who is a longtime educator and a former executive director of Pax Christi USA. Catholics must address the systems in this country and in the church that « have kept injustice, racism and hatred alive, » and instead replace them « with the values of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching, » she said in a reflection that laid out today’s challenges for social justice ministry.

« If we want to really understand » the injustices and institutional racism of this nation’s social and political systems — put in place by « white Western European males » to maintain power and benefit themselves, « we must listen to those on the periphery who have experienced the most violence and most institutional failures, » she said. « We have to listen to those voices and listening is the key. We must listen not to refute or debate or negate (or) deny others’ lived experience. »

As she opened her talk, Chappell, who is African American, said there « will be times during this reflection you may say ‘Amen’ but other times, my brothers and sisters you may want to say, ‘Ouch.' »

« It’s OK if you don’t invite me back again, » she added with a smile, which prompted laughter from the audience. More than a few « Amens » from her listeners punctuated her remarks.

Chappell, a former president of the National Black Sisters’ Conference, is a longtime educator who has worked on issues of social justice and racism for many years. She currently is moderator of the leadership team for her religious community’s U.S. East-West province, and has served as co-coordinator of the community’s anti-racism team.

« Every single social system in this country was intentionally set up to maintain the power and privilege of the white dominant groups, » she said.

Chappell also called for an end to « silo thinking, » because all justice issues are connected.

« Is immigration/refugee reform more important than climate control? Is food insecurity more important than voting rights for all people? Is the death penalty/solitary confinement more important than the nuclear threat? Is domestic violence and abuse more important than gun violence? Is DACA more important than those with physical and mental health challenges? » she asked.

She encouraged those at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering to see the common thread running through all these issues as they attended the meeting’s many workshops on their agenda focusing on poverty, immigration, racism, prison ministry, worker rights, criminal justice reform, mental health, economic development and other topics.

She also asked them to be mindful of these connections when they talked with their representatives on Capitol Hill the last afternoon of the Jan. 28-31 gathering.

Chappell said it « is not a coincidence » that thousands of people « held hostage at our southern border, » those seeking asylum, and those being trafficked for sexual and economic purposes are all « from communities of color. » The « staggering disproportionate number of Black and brown human beings incarcerated in this country, » she said, also « is not a coincidence. »

« Victims of infrastructure failures are found in poor white, brown and Black communities, » she said.

She pointed to water system failures: in 2014, drinking water in the city of Flint, Michigan, was found to be contaminated, exposing tens of thousands of residents to dangerous levels of lead and bacteria. It took two years or more to address, and it is still not totally resolved.

In August 2022, a major water treatment plant in Jackson, Mississippi, failed due to flooding of a nearby river but the plant was years overdue for major repairs. As a result, 180,000 residents had no running water for days, and according to a Jan. 30 FOX News report, repairs could take 10 years and drinking water availability might be intermittent. In September 2022, Baltimore became the latest major city to experience a water crisis involving contamination in the water supply.

« White supremacy is embedded in our country — and our church. Segregation and exclusion are a real part of our religious tradition, » Chappell said, noting that at one time Catholic schools would not enroll children of color, and Catholic churches often made Black Americans sit at the back of church and go to the end of the line to receive Holy Communion.

« The church was among the largest slaveholders, » she added.

In recent years, Catholic institutions have begun to address their role in slavery and the legacies of enslavement and segregation, like Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington with its reparations and reconciliation program for descendants of Black men and women enslaved by the Jesuits.

« We have been called to do the work of justice and peace in our own moment in history, » Chappell said.

« Who said we have to do all of this? Jesus, » she continued. « Jesus said, ‘I came so that all may have life and have it in abundance.’ Emphasis on that ‘all people’ may have life and abundance — not just the wealthy, not just a few, not just white folks, but all of us. »

The principles of Catholic social teaching were laid out in 1891, she noted, referring to Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical « Rerum Novarum » (« On Capital and Labor »), which is considered the church’s breakthrough model on social teaching.

« It says regardless of race, sex, age, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, employment or economic status — all are worthy of respect. Even those brothers and sisters we may feel are offensive — they are worthy of respect, » she said.

Yet, she said, it seems few Catholics seem to know about this Catholic social teaching; and, she added, it is rarely preached from the pulpit.

The challenges for social justice work may seem daunting, Chappell said, but « we must do what we can. »

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Jeshi’s debut studio album,…

Art’s revelatory power has become more important than ever as the current state of the world resembles a disorienting spin. In times like these, art conveys our collective emotional state better than conversations can. Music — particularly conscious music — has been seen as the perfect way to discuss current affairs through a culturally relevant lens.

Most songs that proliferate this genre are sermons disguised as lyrics. Artists who are determined to raise their listeners’ consciousness disregard the negative emotions that come through experiencing institutional decay at such a rapid pace. They take pride in authoritatively telling their listeners to persist and persevere.

Weirdly enough, their approach resembles a philosophy of toxic positivity that makes for a predictable experience. Nowadays, most artists are moving away from the « conscious » artist superlative. Instead, they aim to be empathetic scribes, poetically describing every little detail, regardless of its implications.

One such artist is Jeshi, a 27-year-old alternative rapper hailing from East London. He started establishing himself as an independent artist through touring with fellow English rapper Slowthai in 2019, appearing on R&B songstress Celeste’s EP « Lately, » and dropping his own body of work « Bad Taste » in 2020.

His newest project and debut studio album, « Universal Credit, » is one of 2022’s best contributions to rap. Jeshi’s empathetic worldbuilding devices allow him to creatively discuss the emotional, physical and mental tools of austerity without sounding brash or disconnected.

Throughout the album, Jeshi embodies the exhaustion and frustration of trying to survive an austerity riddled England. Take for example, the second track, « Sick. » He illustrates disappointment, as he’s

Sick of tryna sleep, close the blinds from the light
Sick of seein’ colours every time I close my eyes
Sick of things goin’ wrong and never goin’ right.

Here, Jeshi acknowledges how the everyday disappointments plague his everyday life, causing restlessness and hyperactivity. Life’s unrelenting harshness forces him into a corner he can’t escape. Melodically, Jeshi conveys this untainted melancholy by utilizing distortion and chaos through manipulating his background vocals and electronic instrumentation.

« National lottery, » arguably the best song on the album, showcases his ability as a descriptive and emotionally involved orator. In the song’s first few seconds, Jeshi seems to show glimmers of optimism and confidence.

Wish you were here
I make ice caps disappear
Watch the world burn at the bar sippin’ beer
How many units? Can I move whips?
I’m a nuisance, stop actin’ stupid.

A few moments later we realize that his attitude comes from his lottery addiction:

National lottery every week (Every week)
Itchy palms, can’t get to sleep (Sleep)
National lottery every week
Itchy palms, can’t get to sleep.

Instead of spelling out the subject matter quickly, he lets us sift through it ourselves. He trusts us enough to let us experience the emotional highs and lows he’s going through, letting us decipher what this all means.

Despite the emotional turmoil, Jeshi acknowledges the relationships that have positively impacted him. « Two Mum’s, » is a joyful yet realistic dedication to his mother and grandmother.

Jeshi never feels ashamed of his familial situation and proudly enumerates it:

Two mums
Ain’t got a dad
Won’t see me moan ’bout the cards in my hand
Walkin’ to school
Holdin’ my hand
I’m happy that you never went back.

Jeshi succeeds where other artists fail because he immerses himself and the listener in emotions that are overwhelmingly unfavorable. Time and time again, Jeshi makes himself defenseless so we can exercise empathy for others and ourselves,

Humility is an integral part of storytelling and journalism because people often put their needs and wants at the behest of the story. Many journalists in the climate sector are trying to figure out better methods to report on issues such as global warming, unpredictable weather patterns and a climate migration crisis in order to increase direct action.

Statistics-focused reporting has piqued the public’s interest, but hasn’t spurred a wave of mobilization outside climate activist organizations. While it may seem surprising, statistical reporting is often devoid of emotion and personal connection. Information about the climate crisis effect can reach its liberatory potential only if we truly highlight its effects on the human psyche.

If we want to report on how weather patterns may make islands, forests, and coastlines disappear, we need to creatively display the emotions of those who occupy these spaces. Thankfully, we have bodies of work such as « Universal Credit » that illustrate moments of political and social instability through empathy and understanding.

The best art undoubtedly imparts new perspectives that seep into our everyday lives. Jeshi’s « Universal Credit » is a masterclass in heartfelt and vulnerable social commentary that is full of creativity. Through this album, we see that telling the truth requires humility and compassion.