1. South Sudanese bishops call for food aid, peace negotiations.

By Catholic News Agency, February 28, 2017, 12:02 AM

The bishops of South Sudan issued a call last Thursday for dialogue between the warring factions in the country, and international humanitarian aid to alleviate the famine affecting so many in their nation.

“Those who have the ability to make changes for the good of our people have not taken heed of our previous pastoral messages … we intend to meet face to face not only with the President but with the vice presidents, ministers, members of parliament, opposition leaders and politicians, military officers from all sides, and anyone else who we believe has the power to change our country for the better,” the South Sudanese bishops said in a Feb. 23 pastoral message to the faithful and people of South Sudan.

“We intend to meet with them not once, but again and again, for as long as is necessary, with the message that we need to see action, not just dialogue for the sake of dialogue.”

In their meetings with government and opposition leaders, the bishops will take as a model the importunate widow of Christ’s parable, they emphasized.

South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war since December 2013, when violence erupted in the capital city of Juba and quickly spread throughout the country. The war has is being fought between forces loyal to the country’s president and those loyal to its former vice president, and is largely drawn along ethnic lines. Peace agreements have been short-lived, with violence quickly resuming.

The bishops’ message came at the conclusion of a three-day plenary assembly together with the apostolic nuncio to South Sudan. 

The bishops concluded by announcing that Pope Francis hopes to visit their country later this year.

“The Holy Father is deeply concerned about the sufferings of the people of South Sudan. …We call upon you to begin a programme of prayer for this visit to go ahead. Let us use the coming months fruitfully to begin the transformation of our nation.”


2. Is Francis actually backsliding on punishing abuse?

By Michael Sean Winters, National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 2017

The headline was alarming: “Pope Francis quietly trims sanctions for sex abusers seeking mercy.” The reporter, Nicole Winfield of The Associated Press, is one of the most respected in the religion news business. But is it so?

Those of us who have studied the sex abuse crisis know how intimately intertwined it is with an unhealthy culture of clericalism. 

So, it is surprising to read that Francis, who is astute generally, and especially so in diagnosing the ills of clericalism, would be backsliding on the “zero tolerance” policy that is the keystone in the church’s response to the abuse of children. Again, is it so?

Francis has made mercy a central theme, indeed the central theme, of his pontificate. I can imagine him asking himself: In all these cases of horrible and criminal actions by men vowed to protect children, where is the mercy? Mercy for the victim? Mercy for the 95 percent of clergy who never abused anyone? And, yes, mercy for the abuser?

Francis, and the church he leads, should never, ever apologize for asking where the mercy is in any given situation, even in this horrific one, but I suspect he is astute enough to realize that there is nothing merciful in putting a priest abuser into a situation where he can perpetrate his crimes anew.

And that is my problem with Winfield’s story. It rests on the assumption that removal from the clerical state, or defrocking, is a more just, and less merciful, penalty.

Why is “a lifetime of prayer and penance and removal from public ministry” a “reduced sentence”? Because, in the clerical culture, which is not unknown in the Vatican Curia, there is nothing worse than being defrocked.

But why do the rest of us see the one penalty as more severe, and therefore more appropriate, than the other?

The key objective is to prevent further abuse. If a priest is defrocked, he is cut loose.

This wonderful pope, who is so committed to extending mercy to all in the name of God, the Father of Mercies, does not strike me as singularly naive when it comes to clergy sex abuse. If he grants an abuser one sentence rather than another, I do not care if that is seen as clemency. I care that it keeps the priest from abusing anyone else. I suspect the pope sees it that way too.


3. US bishops denounce rise in anti-Semitic attacks.

By Catholic News Agency, February 27, 2017, 2:24 PM

The U.S. bishops are responding with solidarity and concern for the Jewish community, following a surge in anti-Semitic actions in recent weeks.

“On behalf of the Bishops and people of the Catholic Church, as the Chairman of the Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, I want to express our deep sympathy, solidarity, and support to our Jewish brothers and sisters,” said Bishop Mitchell T. Rozanksi of Springfield in a press release.

“I wish to offer our deepest concern, as well as our unequivocal rejection of these hateful actions,” Bishop Rozanski continued.

On Feb. 20, more than 150 headstones were damaged in University City, Missouri at the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery. Just a week later, over 100 headstones were found similarly knocked over at the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was “deeply saddened” by the vandalism at Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery, and called for “prayerful solidarity with the families of those whose final resting places have been disturbed.”

“As a community, we must speak out to condemn inflammatory messages and actions that serve only to divide, stigmatize, and incite prejudice,” the archbishop continued. 

No suspects have been named in either case, but the damage has reached hundreds of thousands of dollars.

More than 50 bomb threats targeting the Jewish community have also been reported across the country since the beginning of the year, including scares at Jewish community centers in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Milwaukee.  


4. Ecumenism and the quest for peace may carry Francis to South Sudan.

By Inés San Martín, Crux, February 27, 2017

On Sunday Pope Francis confirmed he wants to go to the war-torn nation of South Sudan this year with the Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby. If he pulls it off, it will be yet another trip the pontiff makes in an attempt to make his message of peace, mercy and bridge-building a reality in those corners of the world where it’s needed the most.

During the early days of his pontificate, Pope Francis promised a reduced number of foreign trips compared to those of his predecessors. Yet in less than four years, he’s made 17 trips outside of Italy, visiting 26 countries.

Some of those trips had been decided before his pontificate even began or were more or less foreordained. Others, however, reflect Francis’s personal priorities and sometimes amount to desperate attempts from a man grasping at straws to make his message of peace, mercy and bridge-building a reality.

That’s why he visited the Central African Republic in 2015, and it’s the same reason he wants to go to South Sudan this year. An ongoing war didn’t stop him before, and odds are, it won’t get in his way now either.

Francis has already made this combination of ecumenism and outreach to the peripheries a hallmark of his travelling style. Recall his visit to the Greek island of Lesbos to make a pro-refugee statement in the company of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople last April, for instance, or his peace-building visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan, where he was constantly surrounded by other religious dignitaries.

According to ReliefWeb, the specialized digital service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7.5 million people across the country are in need of humanitarian assistance and protection.


5. On Sunday Francis set forth his distinctive vision of how Christian unity is made.

By Austen Ivereigh, Crux, February 27, 2017

When visiting an Anglican church in Rome, Pope Francis barely referred to the theological, institutional dialogue between Anglicans and Catholics. Instead he indicated three roads to Christian unity: an attitude of humility, shared prayer and actions witnessing to God’s mercy, and learning from the creativity of young churches in the global south.

First, humility. In a reflection on St. Paul attempting to evangelize a divided Corinth, the pope described in his homily how the apostle relied not on his own ability and strength but on God, “as a beggar of mercy.” This, he said, is “the starting point so that God may work in us.” Seeking reconciliation in the face of divisions, St. Paul “grasped the fact that he was fed by mercy and that his priority was to share his bread with others: the joy of being loved by the Lord, and of loving him.”

The second point was that one he has made often: that acting together for the poor creates the space for the Holy Spirit to overcome differences, and indeed is already “a powerful sign of renewed communion.”

Referring to the joint outreach performed by All Saints and the Catholic parish in Rome of Ognissanti – who were formerly twinned on Sunday – the pope noted how “solid communion grows and is built up when people work together for those in need.”

The third point was one made in answer to a question from a Nigerian congregant about what the Churches can learn from developing-world ecumenism, where relations are often “better and more creative” than in Europe.

“When people can’t go on Sunday to the Catholic celebration they go to the Anglican [church], and the Anglicans go to the Catholic [church], because they don’t want to spend Sunday without a celebration; and they work together,” the pope said, adding that “this is a richness that our young Churches can bring to Europe.”

In his answer Francis never excluded theologian dialogue, observing that ecumenism is “perhaps more solid in theological research in a more mature Church” such as Europe’s. His point, as ever, is that those searching for Christian unity need to be attentive to the movements of the Spirit running ahead of the institutions, and the young Churches – unencumbered by the centuries of disputes – can help with that.