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Pope leads prayers for migrants, trafficking victims

Marking the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a former slave, Pope Francis urged Christians to help victims of human trafficking and migrants, especially the Rohingya people being chased from Myanmar.

For the Catholic Church, St. Bakhita's feast day, Feb. 8, is a day of prayer for victims of trafficking.

Pope Francis asked government officials around the world to "decisively combat this plague" of human trafficking, paying particular attention to trafficking in children. "Every effort must be made to eradicate this shameful and intolerable crime."

Describing St. Bakhita as a "young woman who was enslaved in Africa, exploited, humiliated," Pope Francis said she never gave up hope and, finally, she was able to migrate to Europe.

Holding up a booklet with a photograph of the Sudanese saint, who died in Italy in 1947, the pope continued telling her story. In Europe, he said, "she heard the call of the Lord and became a nun," joining the Canossian Daughters of Charity.

"Let us pray to St. Josephine Bakhita for all migrants and refugees who are exploited and suffer so much," the pope said.

"And speaking of migrants who are exploited and chased away, I want to pray with you today in a special way for our Rohingya brothers and sisters," the pope continued. "These people, thrown out of Myanmar, move from one place to another because no one wants them."

Pope Francis told the estimated 7,000 people at his audience that the Rohingya, who are Muslim, "are good people. They are our brothers and sisters. They have been suffering for years. They have been tortured, killed, just because they want to keep their traditions and their Muslim faith."

He led the audience in praying the Lord's Prayer "for our Rohingya brothers and sisters."

In a report released Feb. 3, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said since October, there had been escalating violence against the Rohingya in Myanmar. The report cited eyewitness reports of mass gang-rape, killings -- including of babies and young children -- beatings, disappearances and other serious human rights violations by the country's security forces.

An estimated 66,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh since October, the report said.

The recent violence, the U.N. said, "follows a long-standing pattern of violations and abuses; systematic and systemic discrimination; and policies of exclusion and marginalization against the Rohingya that have been in place for decades in northern Rakhine state."

In his main audience talk, Pope Francis continued to discuss the characteristics of Christian hope, which should be both tender and strong enough to support those who suffer and despair.

The Gospel does not call Christians to pity the suffering, but to have compassion, which means suffering with them, listening to them, encouraging them and offering a helping hand, the pope said.

The Gospel calls Christians "not to build walls, but bridges, not to repay evil with evil, but to defeat evil with goodness (and) offense with forgiveness, to live in peace with all," he said. "This is the church. And this is what Christian hope accomplishes when it takes on the strong and, at the same time, tender features of love."
 
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Magi's journey reflects people's longing for God

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Magi had the courage to set out on a journey in the hope of finding something new, unlike Herod who was full of himself and unwilling to change his ways, Pope Francis said.

The Wise Men who set out from the East in search of Jesus personify all those who long for God and reflect "all those who in their lives have let their hearts be anesthetized," the pope said Jan. 6, the feast of the Epiphany.

"The Magi experienced longing; they were tired of the usual fare. They were all too familiar with, and weary of, the Herods of their own day. But there, in Bethlehem, was a promise of newness, of gratuity," he said.

Thousands of people were gathered in St. Peter's Basilica as the pope entered to the sounds of the choir singing "Angels we have heard on high" in Latin. Before taking his place in front of the altar, the pope stood in front of a statue of baby Jesus, spending several minutes in veneration before kissing it.

The pope said that the Magi adoring the newborn king highlight two specific actions: seeing and worshipping.

Seeing the star of Bethlehem did not prompt them to embark on their journey but rather, "they saw the star because they had already set out," he said.

"Their hearts were open to the horizon and they could see what the heavens were showing them, for they were guided by an inner restlessness. They were open to something new," the pope said.

This restlessness, he continued, awakens a longing for God that exists in the hearts of all believers who know "that the Gospel is not an event of the past but of the present."

It is holy longing for God "that helps us keep alert in the face of every attempt to reduce and impoverish our life. A holy longing for God is the memory of faith, which rebels before all prophets of doom," the pope said.

Recalling the biblical figures of Simeon, the prodigal son, and Mary Magdalene, the pope said this longing for God "draws us out of our iron-clad isolation, which makes us think that nothing can change," and helps us seek Christ.

However, the figure of King Herod presents a different attitude of bewilderment and fear that, when confronted with something new, "closes in on itself and its own achievements, its knowledge, its successes."

The quest of the Magi led them first to Herod's palace that, although it befits the birth of king, is only a sign of "power, outward appearances and superiority. Idols that promise only sorrow and enslavement," he said.

"There, in the palace, they did not see the star guiding them to discover a God who wants to be loved. For only under the banner of freedom, not tyranny, is it possible to realize that the gaze of this unknown but desired king does not abase, enslave, or imprison us," the pope said. 

Unlike the Magi, the pope added, Herod is unable to worship the newborn king because he was unwilling to change his way of thinking and "did not want to stop worshiping himself, believing that everything revolved around him."

Christians are called to imitate the wise men who, "weary of the Herods of their own day," set out in search of the promise of something new.

"The Magi were able to worship, because they had the courage to set out. And as they fell to their knees before the small, poor and vulnerable infant, the unexpected and unknown child of Bethlehem, they discovered the glory of God," the pope said.

After the Mass, Pope Francis greeted tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square to celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. 

A colorful parade led by the sounds of trumpets and drums, people dressed in traditional and festive clothing contributed to the cheerful atmosphere despite the chilly weather. 

Explaining the significance of the Wise Men who presented their gifts to Christ after adoring him, the pope gave the crowds a gift: a small booklet of reflections on mercy. 

The book, entitled "Icons of Mercy," presents "six Gospel episodes that recall the experience of people transformed by Jesus' love: the sinful woman, Zacchaeus, Matthew, the publican, the Samaritan, the good thief and the apostle Peter. Six icons of mercy," the papal almoner's office said. 

Together with the homeless, poor men and women and refugees, religious men and women distributed the books to the crowd. As a thank you, Pope also offered more than 300 homeless men and women sandwiches and drinks.

 
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Defend and protect children, says pope

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Stand up and protect children from exploitation, slaughter and abuse, which includes committing to a policy of "zero tolerance" of sexual abuse by clergy, Pope Francis told the world's bishops.

Wake up to what is happening to so many of today's innocents and be moved by their plight and the cries of their mothers to do everything to protect life, helping it "be born and grow," he said in a letter sent to bishops commemorating the feast of the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28. The Vatican press office published the letter and translations from the original Italian Jan. 2.

Just as King Herod's men slaughtered young children of Bethlehem in his "unbridled thirst for power," there are plenty of new Herods today -- gang members, criminal networks and "merchants of death" -- "who devour the innocence of our children" through slave labor, prostitution and exploitation, he said. Wars and forced immigration also strip children of their innocence, joy and dignity, he added.

The prophet Jeremiah was aware of this "sobbing and loud lamentation" and knew that Rachel was "weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled since they were no more."

"Today too, we hear this heart-rending cry of pain, which we neither desire nor are able to ignore or to silence," Pope Francis said.


"Christmas is also accompanied, whether we like it or not, by tears," and the Gospel writers "did not disguise reality to make it more credible or attractive."

Christmas and the birth of the son of God aren't about escaping reality, but are a way to help "contemplate this cry of pain, to open our eyes and ears to what is going on around us, and to let our hearts be attentive and open to the pain of our neighbors, especially where children are involved. It also means realizing that that sad chapter in history is still being written today."

Given such challenges, Pope Francis told the world's bishops to look to St. Joseph as a role model.

This obedient and loyal man was capable of recognizing and listening to God's voice, which meant St. Joseph could let himself be guided by his will and be moved by "what was going on around him and was able to interpret these events realistically."

"The same thing is asked of us pastors today: to be men attentive, and not deaf, to the voice of God, and hence more sensitive to what is happening all around us," he said.

Like St. Joseph, "we are asked not to let ourselves be robbed of joy. We are asked to protect this joy from the Herods of our own time. Like Joseph, we need the courage to respond to this reality, to arise and take it firmly in hand."

The church weeps not only for children suffering the pain of poverty, malnutrition, lack of education, forced displacement, slavery and sexual exploitation, the pope said, she weeps "because she recognizes the sins of some of her members: the sufferings, the experiences and the pain of minors who were abused sexually by priests."

"It is a sin that shames us," he said, that people who were responsible for caring for children, "destroyed their dignity."

Deploring "the sin of what happened, the sin of failing to help, the sin of covering up and denial, the sin of the abuse of power," the church also begs for forgiveness, he said.

"Today, as we commemorate the feast of the Holy Innocents, I would like us to renew our complete commitment to ensuring that these atrocities will no longer take place in our midst. Let us find the courage needed to take all necessary measures and to protect in every way the lives of our children, so that such crimes may never be repeated. In this area, let us adhere, clearly and faithfully, to 'zero tolerance,'" he said.

The pope urged the bishops to remember that Christian joy doesn't ignore or sugarcoat reality, but "is born from a call" to embrace and protect life, "especially that of the holy innocents."

He asked they renew their commitment to be shepherds with the courage to acknowledge what so many children are experiencing today and to work to guarantee the kind of conditions needed so their dignity will be respected and defended.

- - -

Editors: The text of the pope's letter in English and Spanish can be found on the Vatican website.
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Pope establishes new office for promoting integral human development

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- To promote Catholic social teaching and ensure appropriate assistance to vulnerable people -- especially victims of war, refugees and the sick -- Pope Francis has established a new office combining the responsibilities of four pontifical councils. 

In an apostolic letter given "motu proprio" (on his own initiative) and published by the Vatican Aug. 31, the pope said the new "Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development" will merge the pontifical councils for Justice and Peace, Cor Unum, Migrants and Travelers, and Health Care Ministry. 

The pope named Cardinal Peter Turkson, current president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, to serve as prefect of the new office, which begins functioning Jan. 1.

In his letter signed Aug. 17, the pope said, "This dicastery will be competent particularly in issues regarding migrants, those in need, the sick, the excluded and marginalized, the imprisoned and the unemployed, as well as victims of armed conflict, natural disasters, and all forms of slavery and torture."

According to the new statutes, the prefect will be assisted by a secretary and "at least one undersecretary." Laypeople can be chosen for either role.

While Cardinal Turkson will lead the new office, a section dedicated to refugees and migrants will be led "ad tempus" (for the time being) directly by the pope, who will "exercise it in the manner he deems appropriate," the statutes state. 

The new dicastery's responsibilities include gathering news and information regarding areas of justice and peace and the protection of human rights, particularly in areas where people are plagued by violence, migration, slavery, torture and exploitation, the Vatican said. 

The new office will work to "deepen the social doctrine of the church and ensure that it is widely known and put into practice and that social, economic and political relationships will be increasingly permeated by the spirit of the Gospel," the press statement said. 

Ensuring that local churches offer appropriate material and spiritual assistance to the sick, migrants, refugees and itinerant people also is part of the new office's mandate. 

The Dicastery for Promoting Integrating Human Development will have separate commissions for charity, ecology and health workers and will maintain a "close relationship" with the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Vatican said. 

Pope Francis approved the statutes "ad experimentum" (on a trial basis) for an unspecified period of time.
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World must welcome prince of peace

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The song of the angels that heralded the birth of Christ urges men and women to seek peace in a world divided by war, terrorism and greed, Pope Francis said. 

"Today this message goes out to the ends of the earth to reach all peoples, especially those scarred by war and harsh conflicts that seem stronger than the yearning for peace," the pope said Dec. 25. 

Migrants, refugees, children suffering due to hunger and war, victims of human trafficking as well as social and economic unrest were also remembered by the pope.

"Peace to the peoples who suffer because of the economic ambitions of the few, because of the sheer greed and the idolatry of money, which leads to slavery," he said. 

An estimated 40,000 people slowly made their way through security checkpoints into St. Peter's Square to attend the pope's solemn Christmas blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world). 

Heightened security following the Dec. 19 terrorist attack in Berlin, Germany was evident as police cordoned off streets and established multiple checkpoints throughout the area. 

While police presence is standard for major events in St. Peter's, the added security was a sign of the times where crowded areas have become a target for terrorists.

The pope prayed for "peace to those who have lost a person dear to them as a result of brutal acts of terrorism that has sown fear and death into the hearts of so many countries and cities."

Countries ravaged by the scourge of war were also in the pope's thoughts, particularly in "the war-torn land of Syria, where far too much blood has been spilled," especially in the city Aleppo. The pope called on the world to support the people of Syria with humanitarian assistance and to put an end to the conflict.

"It is time for weapons to be silenced forever and the international community to actively seek a negotiated solution so that civil coexistence can be restored in the country," he said. 

The pope appealed for peace for the people of Ukraine, "who to this day suffer the consequences of the conflict." 

The Vatican announced Dec. 23 that the first installment of 6 million euro ($6.3 million) would be distributed on Christmas Day to assist in relief efforts in Ukraine. Earlier this year, the pope called for a collection across churches in Europe to help the people of the war-torn country.  

Iraq, Libya and Yemen, "where their peoples suffer war and the brutality of terrorism," were in the pope's prayers so that they may "be able to once again find unity and harmony." 

The pope also remembered Africa, especially Nigeria where fundamentalist terrorism "exploits children in order to perpetrate horror and death" as well as South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, calling on their leaders to choose the path of dialogue rather than "the mindset of conflict."

He also prayed for peace in the Holy Land and that Israelis and Palestinians turn away from hate and revenge while having "the courage and determination to write a new page of history."

Praying for an end to current tensions, the pope also called for peace in Venezuela, Colombia, Myanmar and the Korean peninsula

Christ's birth, he said, is a sign of joy and a call for the world to contemplate "the child Jesus who gives hope once again to every person on the face of the earth."

"'For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.' He is the 'prince of peace;' let us welcome him."

After his address, the bells of St. Peter's rang loudly, pealing throughout the square as they did in the evening Dec. 24 following the proclamation of Jesus' birth during Christmas Mass.  

The darkness of the night sky over St. Peter's Basilica was broken by the bright lights emanating from the colonnade and the Christmas tree from the square.

Temperatures just above 40 degrees didn't stop thousands of people unable to enter the packed basilica from participating in the Mass, sitting outside and watching the Mass on giant screens in St. Peter's Square. 

In his homily, the pope said the love of God is made visible at Christ's birth on a night of glory, joy and light "which would illuminates those who walk in darkness."

The shepherds are a witness to "the enduring sign" of finding Jesus when they discover him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger;" a sign that is given to all Christians today, the pope said. 

"If we want to celebrate Christmas authentically, we need to contemplate this sign: the fragile simplicity of a small newborn, the meekness of where he lies, the tender affection of the swaddling clothes. God is there," he said. 

This sign of humility, he added, also reveals a paradox: God who chose not to reveal himself through power, but rather through the "poverty of a stable" and "in the simplicity of life."

"In order to discover him, we need to go there, where he is: we need to bow down, humble ourselves, make ourselves small," the pope said. 

The image of the child in the manger, he continued, is a challenge for all Christians to "leave behind fleeting illusions" and "renounce insatiable claims." 

It is also a calling for the world to respond to the sufferings of children in this age who "suffer the squalid mangers that devour dignity: hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants," the pope said. 

"Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who do not have toys in their hands, but rather weapons," he said. 

Christmas is not only a mystery of hope but also of sadness where "love is not received and life discarded" as seen by the indifference felt by Mary and Joseph "who found the doors closed and placed Jesus in a manger."

That same indifference, he said, exists today when commercialism overshadows the light of God and "when we are concerned for gifts but cold towards those who are marginalized."

"This worldliness has taken Christmas hostage. It needs to be freed!" the pope said departing from his prepared remarks. 

However, the hope of Christmas is the light that outshines this darkness and "draws us to himself" through his humble birth in Bethlehem," he said. 

Noting that Bethlehem means "house of bread," the pope said that Jesus was born to nourish us, creating a "direct thread joining the manger and the cross." 

"In this way, he seems to tell us that he is born as bread for us; he enters life to give us his life; he comes into our world to give us his love. He does not come to devour or to command but to nourish and to serve," the pope said. 

Pope Francis said that like the shepherds, who although marginalized are chosen to witness the birth of Christ, Christians are reminded of God's closeness and can enjoy the true spirit of Christmas: "the beauty of being loved by God."

"Contemplating his humble and infinite love, let us say to him: thank you, thank you because you have done all this for me," the pope said.
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Pope highlights sanctity of life in Year of Mercy visits

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis donned a green hospital gown over his white cassock and entered the neonatal unit of a Rome hospital, peering in the incubators, making the sign of the cross and encouraging worried parents.

The trip to the babies' ward of Rome's San Giovanni Hospital and then to a hospice Sept. 16 were part of a series of Mercy Friday activities Pope Francis has been doing once a month during the Year of Mercy.

By visiting the ailing newborns and the dying on the same day, the Vatican said, Pope Francis "wanted to give a strong sign of the importance of life from its first moment to its natural end."

"Welcoming life and guaranteeing its dignity at every moment of its development is a teaching Pope Francis has underlined many times," the statement said. With the September visits he wanted to put "a concrete and tangible seal" on his teaching that living a life of mercy means giving special attention to those in the most precarious situations.

During the Mercy Friday visits, Pope Francis has spent time with migrants, the aged, at a recovery community for former drug addicts and at a shelter for women rescued from human trafficking and prostitution.

Pope Francis stopped by the emergency room of San Giovanni Hospital before going to the neonatal unit, where 12 little patients were being treated. Five of the newborns, including a pair of twins, were in intensive care and were intubated, the Vatican said. The pope also went to the maternity ward and nursery upstairs, greeting new parents and holding their bundles of joy.

At the neonatal unit, the Vatican said, the pope was "welcomed by the surprised personnel" and, like everyone else, put on a gown and followed all the hygiene procedures. 

Leaving the hospital, he drove across town to the Villa Speranza hospice, which hosts 30 terminally ill patients. The hospice is connected to Rome's Gemelli Hospital.

Pope Francis went into each of the rooms and greeted each patient, the Vatican said. "There was great surprise on the part of all -- patients and relatives -- who experienced moments of intense emotion with tears and smiles of joy."
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Pope's Peace Day message urges individuals, world leaders to take action, show mercy

Pope Francis called for abolishing the death penalty worldwide, lifting the burden of debt on poor nations, global aid policies that respect life and revamped laws that welcome and integrate migrants.

He urged individuals, communities and nations to not let indifference, information overload or pessimism discourage them from concrete efforts to improve the world around us, beginning with our families, neighbors and places of employment.

Building peace, he said, is not accomplished by words alone, but through the grace of God, a conversion of heart, an attitude of compassion and the courage to act against despair.

The pope's multifaceted plea came in his message for World Peace Day, Jan. 1. The message, which was delivered to world leaders by Vatican ambassadors, was released at the Vatican Dec. 15.

The message, titled Overcome Indifference and Win Peace, contained a three-fold appeal to the world's leaders.

He asked that countries: refrain from drawing other peoples into conflicts of wars, which not only destroy a nation's infrastructure and cultural heritage, but also their moral and spiritual integrity; forgive or make less burdensome international debt of poorer nations; and adopt policies of cooperation which, instead of bowing before the dictatorship of certain ideologies, will respect the values of the local populations and not harm the fundamental and inalienable right to life of the unborn.

The pope called on national governments to review their current laws on immigration and find ways they could reflect a readiness to welcome migrants and to facilitate their integration as well as respect the rights and responsibilities of all parties concerned.

All nations' leaders should also take concrete measures in alleviating the problem of a lack of housing, land and employment, the pope wrote, as well as stop discrimination against women in the workplace, which included unfair wages and precarious or dangerous working conditions. He said he hoped those who are ill could be guaranteed access to medical treatment, necessary medications and home care.

With the present Jubilee of Mercy, I want to invite the Church to pray and work so that every Christian will have a humble and compassionate heart and that all people will learn to forgive and to give, he said in his message.

God is never indifferent to the world, he said. He not only sees, hears and knows, he comes down and delivers real healing and eternal teachings.

The credibility of the Church and its members rests on their willingness to live and act with the same tireless mercy God has for the world, the pope said.

We, too, then are called to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another, he said.

Since these attitudes of compassion and solidarity are often handed down from person to person, the pope emphasized the importance of families and teachers in showing what love, respect, dialogue, generosity, charity and faith mean.

He also reminded the media and communicators of their responsibility to serve the truth and not particular interests. They don't just inform people, he said, but also form and influence their audience.

Communicators should also be mindful that the way in which information is obtained and made public should always be legally and morally admissible, he said.

In his message, the pope praised those journalists and religious who raise awareness about troubling and difficult situations, and defend the human rights of minorities, indigenous peoples, women, children and the most vulnerable people in society. (CNS)

 
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Salvation cannot be bought, pope says

Pilgrims must beware of people who seek to use the Jubilee Year to profit off of them since salvation is a gift that cannot be bought, Pope Francis said.

The pope's warning comes after Rome's financial police seized fake parchments – worth an estimated 70,000 euros – that were sold at a souvenir shop near the Vatican, according to a report by The Associated Press Dec. 14. AP said police seized 3,500 parchments being passed off as apostolic blessings that commemorate marriages, baptisms and Holy Year pilgrimages.

Prior to the start of the Jubilee Year, Archbishop Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, said pilgrims must be vigilant not only of terrorist threats but also of scam artists who see the Holy Year as "a source of income."

During his address, Pope Francis expressed his hope that the Holy Year celebrations in dioceses across the globe would serve as "a visible sign of universal communion" and of God's love and mercy to the world.

"Although spread throughout the world and divided into many particular churches, it has always been the one and only Church that Jesus Christ wanted and for whom he offered himself," he said.

The Holy Door is a symbol of Jesus Christ, he said, and pilgrims who pass through it in Rome and in churches around the world make a visible sign of trust in him "who did not come to judge but to save."

"It is a sign of a true conversion of the heart," the pope said. "When we pass through that door, it is good to remember that we should also open wide the doors of our heart."

Confession, he continued, is another important aspect of the Holy Year that gives the faithful the opportunity to have "a direct experience" of mercy. However, one must first recognize their sins and also forgive others in order to fully experience God's love and forgiveness.

"When we recognize our sins and ask forgiveness, there is a celebration in heaven; Jesus celebrates," Pope Francis said. "This is his mercy; do not be discouraged, go forward." (CNS)

 
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