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German bishops announce plans to bless same-sex unions, allow laypeople to baptize and preach at Mass

Delegates at the fifth assembly of the German Synodal Way, meeting in Frankfurt, Germany, on March 11, 2023, applaud after the he passage of a text calling for changes to the German Church's approach to gender identity. / Jonathan Liedl/National Catholic Register

CNA Staff, Mar 17, 2023 / 08:53 am (CNA).

Following the conclusion of the German Synodal Way, several bishops have announced plans to put into practice resolutions passed by the process, including liturgical blessings of same-sex unions in their churches. 

The Synodal Way, which concluded in Frankfurt on March 11, “give[s] us the tailwind we need for concrete changes in our diocese,” Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück said March 14.

Bode — who is vice president of the German Bishops’ Conference — said his diocese encouraged “all couples in our diocese who cannot or do not want to marry in church but still want to put their relationship under a church blessing” to “get in touch with us.” He added that such celebrations were already available in some parishes of his diocese.

Bode on Tuesday also announced that laypeople would be able to baptize babies and “regularly” preach at homilies, CNA Deutsch reported.  

Another German prelate, Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim, added his support, telling staff in his diocese: “It is of great importance to me that LGBTQ people are accompanied pastorally, spiritually, and liturgically. I welcome the Synodal Way’s endorsement of establishing a task force to develop a handout for celebrations of blessing for same-sex couples as well as remarried divorcees,” CNA Deutsch reported.

On Friday last week, the German bishops and other delegates of the Synodal Way passed a resolution to develop and provide Church blessings to same-sex unions. 

Titled “Blessing ceremonies for couples who love each other,” the measure was opposed by only nine of 58 bishops, while 11 bishops abstained. 

German bishops who have previously voiced public support for the blessing of same-sex unions in the Catholic Church include Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising and Bishop Heinrich Timmerervers of Dresden-Meißen.

In March 2022, Cardinal Marx said he had personally blessed a same-sex couple in Los Angeles.

One year earlier, in March 2021, the Vatican confirmed that the Catholic Church does not have the power to give liturgical blessings to homosexual unions. Answering the question “does the Church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex,” the Congregation — now the Dicastery — for the Doctrine of the Faith responded: “Negative.”

In an accompanying note, the Vatican’s doctrine office explained that blessings are sacramentals, and “consequently, in order to conform with the nature of sacramentals, when a blessing is invoked on particular human relationships, in addition to the right intention of those who participate, it is necessary that what is blessed be objectively and positively ordered to receive and express grace, according to the designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.”

Signs of hope and renewal amid the dramatic decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland

A statue of the Virgin Mary on the grounds of the 15th-century Quin Abbey in County Clare, Ireland. / Patrick Leonard/EWTN

Loughmourne, Ireland, Mar 17, 2023 / 08:32 am (CNA).

Father Owen Gorman remembers when Masses in Ireland were so crowded on Sundays that people had to sit on the steps outside the church.

“I grew up in a time in the 1970s and ’80s when churches were full for Sunday Mass. If you didn’t come early, you didn’t get a seat,” he told CNA. “That has changed now.”

In 2021, a survey by the Association of Catholic Priests found that only about 30% of Catholics in Ireland attend Mass weekly — a significant drop from 91% in 1975.

Father Owen Gorman stands outside of the Church of the Sacred Heart, one of his parishes in County Monaghan, Ireland. Colm Flynn/EWTN
Father Owen Gorman stands outside of the Church of the Sacred Heart, one of his parishes in County Monaghan, Ireland. Colm Flynn/EWTN

With decreasing vocations, priests in Ireland are also spread thin, with 2,116 priests serving at 2,650 churches or Mass centers. And more than a third of Irish priests are over the age of 60.

Gorman, 49, serves parishes in Aughnamullen East, Muckno, Latton, and Tullycorbet across the Diocese of Clogher in County Monaghan.

“We just have one seminarian for our diocese, and we haven’t had an ordination for six years now,” he said.

“In 20 years’ time, we will probably have about seven priests in the whole of our diocese, on current trends.”

The scandal of clerical abuse, the social upheaval of the 1960s, materialism, and “bad clericalism” all contributed to the dramatic decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland in the past 50 years.

“The Church had a tremendous amount of power within Ireland that created huge resentments,” Gorman said.

The abuse crisis concentrated minds and there reached a point in which all the pent-up grievances boiled over and “there was just rage against the Church.”

“There was definitely an overreach within Catholicism. We were involved in everything. We were involved in all aspects of life. … I think we took our eye off evangelization,” he reflected.

“We kind of catechized the young people in school, and then we said, ‘OK, that’s it for life.’ So, we never invested in them after that. We never spent our time in an evangelistic capacity, with the result that the faith suffered.”

People pray at Sunday Mass in St. Colmcille's Church in Rathcormac in County Sligo, Ireland. Patrick Leonard/EWTN
People pray at Sunday Mass in St. Colmcille's Church in Rathcormac in County Sligo, Ireland. Patrick Leonard/EWTN

In response to this crisis of faith, today in Ireland some movements and religious orders are pouring their energy into evangelization and faith formation. 

Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford said that he sees this as a sign of hope for Ireland.

“I see tremendous hope actually. I see little pockets of light all over the country,” Cullinan said. “I see the Church as existing in small but wonderfully vibrant, loving pockets all around the place, like little candles, right around the country. And someday they’re going to light a big fire.”

Youth 2000

“There are a few youth movements within Ireland that have definitely created waves. Youth 2000 is one of them,” Gorman said.

Youth 2000 has as its goal to “raise up a new generation of saints” through peer-to-peer ministry for young people ages 16-35.

The international initiative, which came to Ireland in 1993, seeks to “draw young people to a deep and lasting union with Jesus Christ by placing the Eucharist, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life,’ at the center of its mission.”

Twenty-year-old Maria Mann said that Youth 2000 has helped her to find that “it’s so fulfilling when you have God in your life … it fills your heart and your soul.”

“I think our shepherds, our priests, are not preaching the truth. You know, they think that they are giving people what they want by a watered-down Mass or a shorter homily, but young people are craving the truth,” said Eva Newell, who is also active in Youth 2000 in Dublin.

“A lot of what we are finding is that they are craving tradition. They are craving what the Church is.”

Twenty-year-old Maria Mann said that Youth 2000 helped her to find that “it’s so fulfilling when you have God in your life … it fills your heart and your soul.” Patrick Leonard/EWTN
Twenty-year-old Maria Mann said that Youth 2000 helped her to find that “it’s so fulfilling when you have God in your life … it fills your heart and your soul.” Patrick Leonard/EWTN

Holy Family Mission

Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland, is also working to form young people in the faith by giving them the chance to live together in an intentional Catholic community, with daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, and missionary formation.

Started by three youth ministers, the nine-month “gap year” for people aged 18-30 brings together both Irish and international participants to study the faith while living on the grounds of the 200-year-old Glencomeragh estate, where they also help to organize retreats to share the faith with others.

Michael Tierney, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student from County Offaly, is currently participating in the “gap year for God.”

“For a lot of young people who are in the faith, it’s very countercultural. It’s not like it was a few generations ago, so you really need to know your faith,” he said.

“Holy Family Mission is really needed now to produce a generation of young people to lead the renewal of the Church and who are really grounded in what the Church believes.”

Michael Tierney, 27, calls Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland, a "gap year for God." Courtney Mares/CNA
Michael Tierney, 27, calls Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland, a "gap year for God." Courtney Mares/CNA

Irish Dominicans

In a country where at least 10 dioceses do not have a single seminarian studying for the priesthood, many Irish Catholics point to the number of vocations in the Dominican Order as a sign of hope for Ireland.

Father Colm Mannion, the Irish Dominicans’ vocations director, told CNA that at the moment there are 16 men in formation to become Dominicans in Ireland, some of whom left behind careers in law, health care, and other professions (including a professional soccer player who played for Manchester United) to join the order.

Part of the reason why young people are attracted to the Dominican Order is because of its charism of “studying the faith, dedicating our lives to learning truth … with a view to be able to go off and share with other people,” Mannion said.

Dominican friars pray vespers in St. Mary's Dominican Catholic Church in Cork, Ireland. Courtney Mares/CNA
Dominican friars pray vespers in St. Mary's Dominican Catholic Church in Cork, Ireland. Courtney Mares/CNA

“I think in Ireland, at the moment, there’s a real hunger for people to learn more about their faith,” he said. “And I think that is something we see a lot coming through in the younger generations.”

Many people in Ireland “have not really abandoned the faith, they’ve just kind of drifted,” Mannion noted.

“And very often the reason they have drifted from the faith is because they never really understood it to begin with,” he said.

“So I think for a lot of younger people now when they begin to see the richness of our faith and the great tradition that we have — and the great learning and the wisdom and the philosophy and the beauty of our faith — when people connect with that, they really want to be able to communicate that to other people.”

The Dominicans first arrived in Ireland in the year 1224, just three years after St. Dominic died.

“When you look at the history of the Dominican Order, as you look to the history of the Church in Ireland, there’s a lot of ups and downs over the centuries and persecutions. And we’ve experienced good times and bad times, but we’re still here 800 years later,” he said.

A great legacy of saints

Father Patrick Joseph Hughes, a country priest serving a farming community in County Cavan, offered the reminder of the great patrimony offered by Ireland’s saints and martyrs, including many brave priests, bishops, and laypeople who were killed for their faith under England’s Queen Elizabeth and the penal laws.

Father Patrick Hughes shows how to make a traditional St. Brigid's Cross in County Cavan, Ireland. Courtney Mares/CNA
Father Patrick Hughes shows how to make a traditional St. Brigid's Cross in County Cavan, Ireland. Courtney Mares/CNA

Tierney looks to the Bible and finds hope in how “in stories from the Bible we see how God uses just a remnant, like a small number of people, to actually spearhead this renewal of faith or to convert a whole town or village.”

“You do have to have courage because, you know, God is going to call you to unexpected places. And you have to have, I’d say, the courage of openness, too, and to be willing to go where he’ll lead you,” he said.

For Bishop Cullinan, the way forward for the Catholic Church in Ireland will “always come down to personal holiness.”

“As Pope John Paul II used to say, there is a hole in the human heart which only God can fill,” he said. “And that is what I continually work from, knowing that no matter what happens, Christ is the answer.”

Church in Spain has fewer than 1,000 diocesan seminarians for first time in 21 years

null / Credit: Cathopic / Moisés Becerra

ACI Prensa Staff, Mar 16, 2023 / 17:00 pm (CNA).

Spanish seminaries continue to suffer a downward trend in enrollment. According to official data from the Spanish Bishops’ Conference, in the 2022-2023 academic year the total number of aspirants to the priesthood is fewer than a thousand for the first time in 21 years, since records were first kept on a national level.

Every March 19 on the solemnity of St. Joseph, the Catholic Church in Spain observes Seminary Day and the bishops’ conference provides data on seminary enrollment. In the current 2022-2023 academic year there are 974 candidates for the diocesan priesthood.

The number of young men entering the seminary has also fallen for the first time below 200, at 172, and ordinations were fewer than 100, at 97.

These are significant figures, although for years there has been a downward trend. There were close to 1,700 seminarians in the 2002-2003 academic year, when more than 350 men entered and almost 200 were ordained.

Already in the 2016-2017 academic year, the number of aspirants to the priesthood fell for the first time below 1,300, and in the 2018-2019 academic year there were only 1,203.

The bishops’ subcommittee for seminaries said that the drop in the number of 54 seminarians compared with the 2021-2022 academic year “is explained, among other things, by the new methodology in data collection and was the responsibility of the Office of Transparency of the Episcopal Conference.”

Other factors cited affecting the number of seminarians include “secularization and lack of commitment on the part of not a few young people, which are also reflected in other statistical data, such as the decreasing number of marriages, both civil and ecclesiastical.”

In addition, Spain has a very serious demographic problem with fewer and fewer children being born and the population aging more and more.

Despite the decrease in numbers, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference encouraged the faithful “to be grateful that a significant number of young people live committed to searching for the will of God, who invites us to embrace a beautiful vocation in his Church.”

Given the serious import of the data, the conference launched the Vocational Pastoral Service in September 2022, which reports to the General Secretariat and whose objective is “to create in our pilgrim Church in Spain a vocational culture that helps children, young people, and adults to consider their vocation.”

For five years the Spanish Bishops’ Conference has not offered data broken down by diocese.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Here’s why a popular canon law website will have to remove much of its content

null / Credit: Alex Verrone/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Mar 16, 2023 / 16:35 pm (CNA).

A popular canon law website, CanonLaw.Ninja, is removing much of its content by Friday, March 17, to comply with a copyright complaint, which will leave the website without an English translation of the Catholic Church’s Code of Canon Law. 

The website, which describes itself as “a resource for both professional and armchair canonists,” includes an up-to-date translation of the Code of Canon Law with a tool that helps users easily find the information they’re seeking. Father Paul Hedman created the website when he was a seminarian and pays for the website’s upkeep with donations from users.

“Prior to my site, the only place that the code was online was, which was out of date, poorly formatted, and unsearchable,” Hedman said on Twitter

“So I made a tool to be of help. Sourcing the canons from the Vatican website and other places the code was freely available, I put together a website that for the past several years has helped hundreds of canonists, students, and Christian faithful know the law of the Church,” he wrote.

Hedman was served with a cease-and-desist order from the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA), which is the copyright holder of the translation. 

“The Code of Canon Law, Latin-English Edition,” which is the society-owned translation, is sold on the CLSA website for $75 but is currently out of stock. “The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches” is available for $50. “Dignitas Conubii: Norms and Commentary” is also available for $50. 

The Minnesota priest tweeted that the letter “came as a shock” and wondered why “the CLSA [would] want to prevent people from accessing the law” and why they had not contacted him before taking legal action, based on the principles of Canon 1446. 

“If the CLSA chooses to make their fine translation of the code less accessible, the study [and] application of canon law will suffer,” Hedman said. “I beg them to reconsider: rather than make an adversary of a priest trying to serve the Church, be a team for the salvation of souls — the Lex Suprema.”

Hedman said he requested several alternative solutions to the problem, which would have allowed the content to stay on the website, but the CLSA did not accept any of them. He offered to stop collecting donations, split the donations with CLSA, pay yearly royalties, or even give the CLSA rights to the tool. 

“I am asking the CLSA to reconsider their course of action and allow for licensing of their translation of the code so that it may be used on,” Hedman said. “It would be regrettable if the resource had to be temporarily disabled until another translation can be found.”

The CLSA did not respond to requests for comment from CNA. 

Some priests took to Twitter to voice their opposition to the legal action. 

“The reality is that whether it’s a biblical translation (USCCB) or translation of the code (CLSA), these things need to move into the public domain after cost is recouped,” Father Josh Miller tweeted. “Instead, they end up paying for the cocktail parties, and that’s pretty disgraceful.”

Father Matthew Schneider, a priest with the Legionaries of Christ, urged the CLSA to work with Hedman to ensure the website can continue to function as it has. 

“Please find some way to work with Fr. Paul & keep operating with the best English translation of canon law,” he tweeted to the Canon Law Society’s Twitter handle.

The cease-and-desist letter demands Hedman remove and destroy all copyrighted material from the website and halt any further use, reproduction, and transmission that would infringe on CLSA’s copyright. It further demands that Hedman destroy all materials, including physical copies, of the copyrighted translation, except for publications purchased from CLSA. 

According to the cease-and-desist letter, copyrighted materials include the website’s Code of Canon Law translation, the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches translation, and the Dignitas Connubii translation, which is a Vatican document on the nullification of marriages. This would not affect the other material on the website. 

The letter requests that the content be removed on March 16, but Hedman told CNA that he was given a one-day extension. He said he will comply with all of the demands in the letter and remove the copyrighted materials by Friday, March 17. 

“I fully intend to comply with the cease-and-desist order and remove the content that the CLSA owns, if that is what it comes to,” Hedman said in a tweet. “I hold no animosity against the society, and if I ever became a canonist would plan to join.”

Ecclesiastical documents are often copyrighted, except for older documents that have entered the public domain. According to Canon 828: “It is not permitted to reprint collections of decrees or acts published by some ecclesiastical authority unless the prior permission of the same authority has been obtained and the conditions prescribed by it have been observed.” 

Other Catholics have also had similar problems when trying to republish ecclesiastical works and specific translations. Matthew Warner, who founded a church communications software company called FlockNote, sent free daily emails with excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was meant to cover the entire catechism in one year. 

He discontinued that practice after he received a cease-and-desist letter from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which owns the copyright to the catechism.

The English version of the Code of Canon Law is available on the Vatican’s website. 

UPDATE: Where are Catholics allowed to eat corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day this Lent?

St. Patrick and corned beef. / Left: Hope Phillips / Shutterstock. Right: Slawomir Fajer / Shutterstock

Washington D.C., Mar 16, 2023 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

This year St. Patrick’s Day falls on a Friday.

For those who aren’t Catholic but are keen on observing the feast day with green beer and the traditional corned beef and cabbage, this is something of a happy coincidence and a great way to end the work week.

For Catholics it’s problematic. It’s Lent, a penitential time when Catholics are supposed to abstain from meat on Fridays.

As the luck of the Irish would have it, there is a way out of this dilemma. Diocesan bishops can give the faithful a dispensation to allow them to eat meat on March 17.  The National Catholic Register’s Matt McDonald surveyed all of the bishops in the U.S. to find out which ones are offering a free pass on St. Patrick’s Day.

Here’s what he heard back:

“As of Thursday, March 16, 73.1% of the dioceses — 128 — were offering some relief from the no-meat-on-Fridays-during-Lent rule for St. Patrick’s Day.

“Of those saying some form of yes, 94 diocesan bishops are providing a dispensation with no strings attached — although many of those bishops suggest extra prayers or spiritual exercises or abstaining from meat on another day. Thirty-four diocesan bishops said some form of ‘yes, but …’  — requiring a substitute through what canon law calls a ‘commutation’ of the requirement, such as attending Mass on St. Patrick’s Day, saying the Breastplate of St. Patrick, praying the rosary, abstaining from meat another day, or helping the poor.

“Also in the yes-but category is the Archdiocese for the U.S. Military Services, which is requiring abstinence from meat on another day the same week as St. Patrick’s Day for those planning to eat meat on Friday, March 17.

“Forty-five diocesan bishops have said no to a general dispensation or commutation for all Catholics in the diocese, although many of those say they would grant individual dispensations upon request. That’s 25.7% of the dioceses.”

So, before heading out to celebrate, here’s a handy map showing which dioceses have given the green light (sorry) to eating meat on St. Patrick’s Day:

To learn about the history of the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day by Irish Catholics in the United States read this fascinating article by McDonald in the National Catholic Register.

Texas lawmakers propose making illegal immigration a felony

Migrants, mostly of Venezuelan origin, attempt to forcibly cross into the United States at the Paso del Norte International Bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on March 12, 2023. / Photo by HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Washington D.C., Mar 16, 2023 / 15:24 pm (CNA).

The Republican leadership in the Texas House announced last week that passing a bill to make illegal immigration a felony is a top priority this spring.

The “Border Protection Unit Act,” introduced last week by state Republican Rep. Matt Schaefer and supported by key leaders of the majority-Republican Texas House of Representatives, would create a specialized border protection police force and make illegal immigration a state felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan issued a March 10 press release announcing that House leadership will prioritize passing the Border Protection Unit Act. 

“Addressing our state’s border and humanitarian crisis is a must-pass issue for the Texas House this year, and I thank Representatives Guillen and Schaefer for filing … [bills that] will lead to a safer Texas that overall reduces the cost to taxpayers,” Phelan said.

The act would give the new border protection unit full legal authority to “arrest, detain, and deter individuals crossing the border illegally including with the use of nondeadly force.” Additionally, the unit’s chief, who would be appointed by the governor, would have the authority to deputize civilians “to participate in unit operations and functions” so long as those individuals have not been convicted of a felony.”

Another bill proposed by state Rep. Ryan Guillen would establish a Border Safety Oversight Committee to oversee the new border protection unit and provide border policy recommendations to the Legislature.

The Texas House Mexican American Legislative Caucus immediately denounced Schaefer’s proposed legislation, calling it an “extreme vigilante death squads policy.” 

“This dangerous, radical, and unconstitutional proposal which empowers border vigilantes to hunt migrants and racially profile Latinos is going to result in the death of innocent people,” the statement read.

Schaefer responded in a tweet: 

“The Texas Border Protection Unit will be an organization of professional men and women hired/trained under the authority of the Dept. of Public Safety to protect Texans. Many will be licensed peace officers, others trained and specifically authorized by the Governor to make lawful arrests. Exactly as the Nat’l Guard & DPS operate now under Operation Lone Star.”

Operation Lone Star is an ongoing border security initiative that was first launched in the spring of 2021 by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. 

The initiative has dedicated billions of state dollars and resources to border security and sent thousands of public safety officers and National Guard soldiers to the Texas-Mexico border. 

To become law, Schaefer’s bill will have to pass both houses of the Texas Legislature before the end of the legislative session in May. Republicans hold majorities in both the Texas House and Senate, making increased border security policies very possible.

According to the Border Protection Unit Act’s text, if two-thirds of both houses approve the act it will take effect immediately. If the bill is passed without a two-thirds majority, it will take effect on Sept. 1 of this year.

Texas Republican Sen. Brian Birdwell introduced similar legislation in the Senate, making illegally crossing the border a state felony punishable by jail time. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the state Senate, has signaled his support for Birdwell’s bill.

Abbott, who is a Catholic Republican, has said that securing the border is an “emergency item” for the 2023 Texas legislative session.

A Feb. 16 press release from Abbott’s office announced that he intends to work with the Legislature to “secure another $4.6 billion to bolster border security efforts” and to “pass legislation making it at least a 10-year mandatory minimum jail sentence for anyone caught smuggling in Texas.”

With a record 2.76 million-plus undocumented migrants crossing the border in the fiscal year 2022, illegal immigration has been a growing concern for not only Republicans but also some key Democrats, including President Joe Biden.

In February, the Biden administration announced a new policy that will take effect May 11 and automatically deny asylum to migrants who cross the border illegally or cross other countries illegally to get into the United States. Biden’s new rule, which is his most restrictive border policy yet, will remain in effect until May 11, 2025.

Responding to Biden’s new policy, Dylan Corbett of the Catholic relief group Hope Border Institute told CNA that those setting immigration policy should consider the effects on migrants.

“We spend billions of dollars every year on border and immigration enforcement. There is no doubt that we can reinvest some of those resources into putting in place a safe, efficient, welcoming system at the border that upholds the rights of vulnerable migrants and keeps our country safe.

“At this point, it is only a question of overcoming the political hurdles. Unfortunately, many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle today only see the political cost of making progress on immigration, but they don’t realize that there is also a moral cost to shutting the door on the most vulnerable that is far more consequential,” Corbett said.

UK bishops say law criminalizing prayer outside of abortion clinics is discriminatory

Father Sean Gough, a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Birmingham, England, faced criminal charges for praying for free speech outside an abortion clinic after business hours in violation of a strict buffer zone law in the English city of Birmingham. “I pray wherever I go, inside my head, for the people around me. How can it be a crime for a priest to pray?” he said in a Feb. 9, 2023, statement from the ADF UK legal group. / Credit: ADF UK

Denver, Colo., Mar 16, 2023 / 12:52 pm (CNA).

Catholic bishops in the United Kingdom said a new law criminalizing prayer and outreach outside abortion clinics in England and Wales discriminates against people of faith.

“We lament that prayer, holding certain views, or peacefully witnessing to the Gospel of life in certain ‘zones’ across these lands may now be a criminal offense,” Auxiliary Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ lead bishop for life issues, said March 15.

“Throughout this bill’s passage through Parliament, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has reiterated its concern that this proposed legislation, despite any other intent, constitutes discrimination and disproportionately affects people of faith,” Sherrington said.

Britain’s House of Commons approved legislation on March 7 to create “buffer zones” across the country, which strictly bans behavior that “interferes with any person’s decision to access, provide, or facilitate the provision of abortion services” around abortion facilities.

The law’s broad provision would prohibit a wide range of behavior, including silent prayer.

Violation would be punished with a fine. However, the fine is potentially unlimited.

Several individuals have already run afoul of buffer zones enacted by localities. Adam Smith-Connor, whose unborn son died in an abortion decades earlier, was fined for praying outside an abortion facility under a protection order in Bournemouth in November 2022.

Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, co-director of March for Life UK, and Archdiocese of Birmingham priest Father Sean Gough were acquitted in February of all charges against them after they were accused of breaking a Birmingham council protection order for praying in front of an abortion clinic. The charges concerned separate incidents. The day before the vote in Parliament, Vaughan-Spruce was detained for praying again outside the same abortion facility.

The bishops of England and Wales were especially concerned that lawmakers rejected an amendment to protect silent prayer and consensual communication in affected buffer zones. The amendment failed by a vote of 299-116.

Religious freedom is essential for society and human flourishing, the bishops’ statement said.

“This includes the right to manifest one’s beliefs in public including through witness, the raising of one’s mind and heart to God in prayer, and charitable outreach,” they added. “Yet this new law potentially inhibits this, restricting freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.”

The bishops emphasized that such zones could be expanded to other topics and these raise “serious questions about the state’s powers in relation to the individual in a free society, both those with faith and those without.”

Paul Coleman, executive director of the religious freedom advocacy group ADF International, characterized the buffer zones as “censorship zones.”

Writing in a March 10 Newsweek essay, he said the law is “about leveraging the full power of government censorship to suppress a particular viewpoint, giving police the authority to question and arrest individuals solely on the basis of their thoughts.”

In their statement, the bishops condemned all harassment and intimidation of women and said there is “little, if any, evidence to suggest that vigil participants engage in these behaviors.” The new law, they said, is too broad and “both disproportionate and unnecessary.”

At the same time, peaceful prayer and outreach outside abortion facilities are part of Christian witness and practice, according to the bishops.

“Christian prayer cannot be confined to places of worship or the privacy of one’s own home,” they said. “In each moment of every day, Christians are called to prayer.”

They cited Jesus’ “greatest commandment,” to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our mind, and with all our soul and to love our neighbor as ourself.”

“This new law potentially strikes at the heart of being able to respond to this call and duty,” the bishops said. Christians are called to show “special regard for the most vulnerable and the poorest among us.”

“Who can be more vulnerable than a baby in the womb?” they asked. “As Catholics we hold that life is sacred from the first moment of conception and that harming, attacking, or denying life in these circumstances is completely foreign to the religious and cultural way of thinking of the people of God.”

For decades, since abortion was legalized in 1967, Catholics have taken part in “peaceful and often silent witness to the dignity of human life outside the places where over 10 million unborn lives have been taken.”

“Catholics feel a strong call to witness through peaceful presence to the sanctity of life and the injustice of abortion,” they said.

At the same time, love of neighbor motivates believers to “offer practical help to those in need.” Catholics have long offered “vital practical support outside abortions clinics to expectant mothers who might dearly wish to keep their babies.”

“Where there is need, Christ bids us to serve,” the bishops of England and Wales said.

Facing hundreds of sex abuse lawsuits, Albany Diocese to declare bankruptcy

The Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany, NY. / Drew Proto via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Denver, Colo., Mar 16, 2023 / 09:47 am (CNA).

The Catholic Diocese of Albany has decided to file for bankruptcy, saying a financial reorganization will help provide some compensation for the hundreds of sex abuse victims who have filed lawsuits.

“I understand this filing causes uncertainty, but as a Church and a community of faith, we must recognize that victim-survivors are our sons and daughters, and our brothers and sisters, and all of us, without exception, must work together to find ways to help them,” Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of Albany said in a March 15 statement. 

“It’s a natural thing for us to do, especially for those who have been hurt by an institution we are all called to be a part of. We must reach out to all and journey with them through the healing process,” the bishop’s statement read.

Parishes and schools are not part of the filing and are incorporated as different entities, the bishop said.

“It is very important for me to point out that the mission and ministries of the diocese and parishes will continue during the reorganization proceedings,” he said. He asked for prayers “for all involved, that God’s peace and healing can prevail.”

Scharfenberger said the diocese has been named in more than 400 lawsuits filed from August 2019 to August 2021 under the Child Victims Act of 2019. The act allowed a retrospective one-year “look back” window during which alleged abuse victims could file lawsuits long after the statute of limitations had ended. Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo extended the window through 2021, citing the obstacles caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The diocese has settled more than 50 of these lawsuits. Settlements have been “large” and the “limited funds” have been depleted, the bishop said.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy will ensure “some compensation” for all abuse victims with pending litigation. The collection of debts and legal actions against the diocese will halt and a reorganization plan will determine available assets and insurance carrier participation “to negotiate reasonable settlements” with abuse victims and other creditors.

There is no timeline for the Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the Albany Diocese said in a statement. Other reorganizations have continued for several years. Bankruptcy reorganization plans usually must be approved by the affected creditors, including lawsuit plaintiffs, and also by the bankruptcy court.

The bankruptcy announcement follows months of negotiations between attorneys for the diocese and for the plaintiffs. Several attorneys for plaintiffs complained that the diocese’s offer of a global settlement fell far short of a reasonable amount and alleged that the diocese’s attorneys had obstructed the legal discovery process, the Albany Times-Union reported.

Scharfenberger took office in 2014. According to the diocese’s website, the Albany Diocese serves about 316,000 Catholics in a population of 1.4 million. About 68 diocesan priests are in active ministry, the diocese’s website reports.

The Albany Diocese joins five New York dioceses that have declared bankruptcy amid the lawsuits brought under the Child Victims Act. The other dioceses are Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and Rockville Centre.

The St. Clare Hospital pension fund is also a subject of lawsuits. More than 1,100 former employees of the closed Schenectady hospital lost some or all of their retirement savings when the fund emptied in 2019 as a result of a decision in the 1990s to drop the fund’s federal pension insurance protection, WAMC Northeast Public Radio reported. The hospital, which shut down in 2008, operated under the diocese. A 2019 lawsuit against the diocese seeks damage on behalf of the pensioners.

Though these lawsuits will be halted, Scharfenberger said this was not the diocese’s aim for filing the bankruptcy.

A special section on the Albany Diocese’s website addresses the reorganization. The bishop pointed to information on the diocese’s child protection and safe environment resources and its Hope and Healing effort for abuse survivors.

“I apologize to the victim-survivors and their families for the inexcusable harm that was done to them by those in positions of trust,” he said. He emphasized the dioceses’ commitment to its programs for victim-survivors, including work to facilitate mental health services and to provide opportunities for spiritual healing.

“They are part of our community in Christ, and as a Church we are called to share his love, to be his heart in the world today,” the bishop said of abuse victims.

Albany’s Bishop Emeritus Howard Hubbard, who led the diocese from 1977 until 2014, gave a deposition made public in March 2022 in which he admitted that he did not report several instances of alleged sexual abuse of minors by priests, instead choosing to keep the allegations quiet and to refer the priests for treatment.

Hubbard has defended his response to abuse cases, saying that it was “common practice” in the 1970s and 1980s to act as he did, though he acknowledged that his failure to notify the parish and the public when a priest was removed from or restored to ministry was a “mistake.” 

In a majority of the cases “the victims themselves did not want to make the matter public and many times sought confidentiality through their attorneys.”

A March 2021 lawsuit has accused him of abusing a boy in 1977, an allegation that he has denied. Hubbard has asked the Vatican to permanently remove him from the clergy, contending he can no longer serve in public ministry.

Miami University student group hopes to install Plan B ‘morning after pill’ vending machine on campus

Plan B. / Mike Mozart via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Washington D.C., Mar 15, 2023 / 15:55 pm (CNA).

Miami University’s student government association has plans to install a “Plan B” emergency contraception vending machine on its Oxford, Ohio, campus in time for the fall semester.

Plan B emergency contraception, also known as “the morning-after pill,” is a one-step pill that can sometimes act as an abortifacient.

Though plans have not yet been finalized, the university’s student government has proposed purchasing the pills in bulk and selling them in a campus community hall to make them available to students 24/7 at a discounted price, according to student government meeting notes.

Miami University would be the first school in Ohio to have a contraception vending machine on campus.

Sophomore Ryan Parker, one of the students behind the proposal, told The Miami Student that he expected the university’s administration to approve the initiative.

“We’re still kind of working out those logistics with a bunch of different departments on campus, but everyone has been overly supportive so far,” Parker told the student newspaper.

Several universities throughout the U.S. already have similar emergency contraception vending machines on campus including George Washington University, the University of California-Los Angeles, and Boston University.

The initial purchase of the machine and pills would be paid for by the school’s Associated Student Government, which, like other student-run organizations, receives money from the university. The continued stocking of the pills would be funded by the sale of pills to students.

According to the manufacturers, the pill is designed to be effective for up to 72 hours, preventing ovulation and thus stopping a pregnancy before conception.

However, some say that the Plan B pill can act as an abortifacient. According to Miami University Students for Life, “emergency contraception has the potential to end a human life.”

“There are two ways Plan B is capable of ending the life of a conceived human. First, its chemical makeup directly affects the hormones at play within the female reproductive system and can prevent enough progesterone (the ‘pregnancy hormone’) from sustaining the offspring,” the petition states.

“Second, Plan B is capable of creating an inhospitable uterine environment with the thinning of the endometrium. This uterine lining is, without artificial interference, thick and ready for a conceived child to implant and continue the gestational process. If the embryo survives all of Plan B’s previous defenses and arrives at the uterus only to find nowhere to implant, he or she will die.”

Miami University Students for Life said the initiative, which proposes allocating $3,500 for the Plan B vending machine, would use student-funded dollars for something that could be harmful to women’s health.

“Current research shows Plan B can cause serious complications, be ineffective, and potentially create more serious long-term health conditions,” Miami University Students for Life said in an online petition to stop the vending machine.

Alecia Lipton of Miami University’s media relations office told CNA that “the proposed Plan B vending machine is not a university initiative but is a student-led project of the Associated Student Government [ASG] at Miami University.”

“If an emergency-contraception vending machine were to be purchased by the Associated Student Government, it would be funded by monies controlled by ASG, not the Miami administration,” Lipton said. “The proposed vending machine would dispense the over-the-counter contraceptive medication, Plan B, which delays or prevents ovulation but does not end a pregnancy that has implanted.”

According to Lipton, “at this point there is neither any certainty that a vending machine will be installed nor a specific time frame or date for completion of this proposed initiative.”

Still, she told CNA that plans are underway to make a Plan B vending machine available to students.

“The Associated Student Government is working to determine sourcing of products, costs, and a potential on-campus location,” she said. 

Caroline Wharton, a representative of the national group Students for Life of America, told CNA that the organization supports its Miami University chapter’s petition to stop the Plan B vending machine.

“‘Emergency contraception’ is really an abortifacient with the potential to kill preborn life,” Wharton said. “Beyond being a danger to children in the womb, having such drugs in a vending machine also increases their ability to be put in the hands of an abuser, putting women at risk as well.”

“Campuses should have life-affirming resources available for students — assisting with things like child care, financial aid, needed materials, food, etc. for pregnant and parenting students — instead of encouraging a culture of irresponsible sexual activity, disregard for preborn life, and possible abuse,” Wharton said.

Abortion is legal in Ohio until 22 weeks of pregnancy. An Ohio law banning abortion after a detectable heartbeat, typically six weeks’ gestation, is currently blocked as it works its way through the state court system.

Catholic gap year program in Ireland prepares young people for lifelong mission

Young people at Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. / Credit: Courtney Mares/CNA

Glencomeragh, Ireland, Mar 15, 2023 / 13:42 pm (CNA).

A new gap year program gives young people the opportunity to spend one year living in Ireland in an intentional Catholic community with daily Mass, eucharistic adoration, and faith formation.

Located in the rolling green hills of County Waterford, the Holy Family Mission program is seen by many local Catholics as a ray of hope for the Church in Ireland. 

“This idea of having a place where you can get to know yourself better, get to know the Lord better, and then really face life as a more confident, well-rounded, mature, faithful person is a great gift,” Bishop Alphonsus Cullinan of Waterford told CNA.

“I wonder how many young people wander into college without really knowing what they want, and then get distracted with all kinds of things,” he said.

The nine-month “gap year” is for people aged 18-30 who desire greater formation in their Catholic faith. Approximately 30 young people live on the grounds of the 200-year-old Glencomeragh estate, where they also help to organize retreats to share the faith with others.

‘A gap year for God’

Teresa Jansen came to Holy Family Mission from Chicago directly after high school because she felt the need for more training in her faith and wanted to “dive deeper” in her relationship with God.

“There are just so many opportunities to be able to pray and to really encounter the Lord,” Jansen said.

“My highlight has been adoration every day. Having adoration and Mass every single day has been key, I think, just because that’s where the transformation has really happened. … And then along with that, deep, authentic friendships have come out of this year,” she said.

Participants of Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission
Participants of Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission

“God is forming me for mission just because he’s doing a lot in my heart that I wasn’t expecting.”

Michael Tierney, a 27-year-old Ph.D. student from County Offaly, Ireland, calls Holy Family Mission “a gap year for God.”

“Some people go on retreats or they go for weekends and they have like this spiritual or ‘Jesus high’ for a couple of days, but then they go back to their normal lives and they fall back into old habits,” Tierney said.

“Holy Family Mission is really needed now to produce a generation of young people to lead the renewal of the Church and who are really grounded in what the Church believes.”

Bearing fruit

In a country where at least 10 dioceses do not have a single seminarian studying for the priesthood, Holy Family Mission has borne remarkable fruit since its founding in 2016.

Seven alumni of the program have gone on to enter the priesthood or religious life. Others have met their spouse during their time at Holy Family Mission.

“We’re seeing a lot of green shoots in the ‘yes’ that young people have given here in their generosity to God,” Maura Murphy said. 

Murphy is one of three youth ministers who founded Holy Family as a house of formation. She said that many young people describe the gap year as the “steppingstone that they needed” before entering college life.

Participants at Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission
Participants at Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission

“Many of them have gone on and have got really involved in their college campuses. Some of them have started Catholic societies. Some of them have started off Catholic households on campus,” she said.

“Some who come to us have been teachers, nurses. They have taken a career break … and they’ve gone back to that reality, they have gone back into that environment, but better formed to witness to the faith and to answer questions that their colleagues have.”

Bishop Cullinan remarked: “It’s bearing fruits, first of all, in all of these young people being more confident in themselves and in their faith to face whatever life has for them. Some have gone into religious life, but most of them have gone on to just being more confident in the chosen path that they’ve taken.”

“And there have been a few marriages as well,” he added. “And that, you know, is great because the vocation to marriage is … so fundamental to the well-being of society.”

An answered prayer

Father Patrick Cahill, Patrick Reynolds, and Murphy were each working in youth ministry in different parts of Ireland but kept hearing the same things. 

“We were hearing young people say we desire formation. We desire community. We want to know more about the faith. … And at that point, we didn’t know where to send them in Ireland,” Murphy recalled. 

She said that the dream was to have “a house of formation for young people in Ireland, a place where they could live in for a set period of time, where they could be walked with accompanied, where they could be taught the faith, and where they could share it with young adults.”

Maura Murphy, Father Patrick Cahill, and Patrick Reynolds, founders of Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission
Maura Murphy, Father Patrick Cahill, and Patrick Reynolds, founders of Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission

In April 2016 the three youth ministers approached Bishop Cullinan to pitch the idea of forming young people in Ireland and having a missionary outreach to young people and families.

Cullinan remembered: “I listened and I was really taken by the idea. I said, ‘This is the kind of thing we need.’” 

The Glencomeragh property came to the bishop’s mind, but he did not say anything because it did not belong to the diocese. He said: “Look, let’s pray about it. If God wants this to happen, it’ll happen.”

The very next day, the bishop received a call from a priest with the Rosminian order who said that the order wanted to gift the Glencomeragh property to the diocese “if it had a purpose for it.”

Cullinan said: “I actually had to ask him to repeat it. And I sat down. And he said it again. And I said, ‘There’s an answer to prayer!’”

Murphy recalls that the bishop “really saw that the Lord wanted Holy Family Mission and his time was now.” Holy Family Mission opened within a few months.

“Sometimes it is the case that the Lord is putting that deep desire in your heart because he’s actually asking you to respond to that call. He’s showing you a need, and he wants you to cooperate with his guidance and to make it happen,” Murphy said.

A Marian and eucharistic spirituality

Holy Family Mission focuses on formation in five areas: spiritual, personal, academic, community, and mission. 

For Father Cahill, the full-time priest in residence for the program, the ultimate goal of the gap year is for young people to “know the Lord.”

“God has revealed himself to us because he wants us to know him. How can we love a God that we don’t know? So that’s what we aim to do. Here we aim to facilitate through various means in everything that we do to know who the Lord is. So if it’s academics, if it’s through community life, but most especially through being with him, and that’s why everything has to be eucharistic,” he said.

Tierney described the spirituality of Holy Family as “very Marian and eucharistic.”

Eucharistic adoration at Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission
Eucharistic adoration at Holy Family Mission in County Waterford, Ireland. Credit: Holy Family Mission

“We have the rosary. We have eucharistic adoration. We also have a chapel on site where people can go during the day and just check in with God. And you know, that’s really important, because at least from me, like that’s where the growth has really occurred,” he said.

Holy Family Mission uses materials from Franciscan University of Steubenville’s Catechetical Institute as part of its intellectual formation. A counselor is also made available to the community. 

“We want to be in the right environment, a prayerful environment with like-minded people, where we can study our faith and allow that knowledge to impact our prayer life, to impact who we are, and how we interact with those around us,” Murphy said.

“We hope that in the nine or 10 months that they are here, that at the end, they are closer to who God has asked them to be and has called them to be, better equipped to live out the Gospel, and to fully embrace the beauty of it,” she said.