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Bishops’ call to address ‘maternal health crisis’ highlights U.S. maternal death rate

null / Credit: Omurden Cengiz/Unsplash

CNA Staff, May 28, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The U.S. bishops this month urged Congress to address the “maternal health crisis” in the United States, stressing that American women “face a high maternal mortality rate” relative to other countries. 

Long a cause of alarm among physicians and women’s advocates, the U.S. maternal mortality rate has regularly been posited as much higher than similar developed nations. Data from the CIA’s World Factbook, for instance, shows the “U.S. maternal death ratio” per 100,000 births as more than double that of countries such as France and Greece, and nearly triple that of countries like Switzerland. 

In their letter to Congress earlier this month, the U.S. bishops pointed to “data showing the maternal mortality rate has grown over the last two decades.”

“Women must … receive maternal health care that encompasses a wholistic view of their inherent dignity and value as expressed in the unique and God-given role of motherhood,” the prelates said. 

“Women face many obstacles in obtaining quality maternal health care,” the bishops wrote, pointing also to racial disparities in maternal mortality data, with nonwhite women facing higher rates of maternal death throughout the country.

The bishops urged Congress to “consider policies that, in line with our long-standing health care principles, provide health care formulated to meet the needs of mothers from every walk of life.”

Maternal mortality calculated by several factors

Classifying maternal mortality in the U.S. has long been something of a patchwork affair due to the autonomy that states have in determining such statistics. 

Jonathan Scrafford, an OB-GYN with Ascension Via Christi in Wichita, Kansas, told CNA that maternal health outcomes around the time of pregnancy “are tracked in several ways” in the U.S.

“‘Maternal death’ is a term describing the death of a patient occurring either during pregnancy, or within six weeks following the end of the pregnancy, and from causes related to the pregnancy, but excluding purely coincidental causes,” he said. 

The “maternal mortality ratio,” meanwhile, describes “the number of maternal deaths in a given time period, per 100,000 live births,” which is seen by statisticians as a reliable indicator of maternal mortality overall. 

Variations in classification of these deaths can result in divergent datasets between countries and even U.S. states, Scrafford said. 

“Most maternal deaths in the U.S. occur during the postpartum period,” he said. “About 1 in 5 occur at some point prior to delivery; and about 1 in 4 occur between the day of delivery and the first week thereafter.”

“As for the particular conditions related to pregnancy that contribute to maternal deaths, hemorrhage and infection are leading causes in both the U.S. and worldwide,” he said. Cardiovascular disease also plays a significant role in the statistics.

Overall, maternal deaths in the U.S. “most commonly occur in the few weeks following a delivery, often during a separate hospitalization, and in many cases due to causes not typically thought of as pregnancy-related,” he said.

‘Understand and address the high rates of maternal mortality’

The U.S. figures have been the subject of debate among statisticians and medical experts in recent years. Most recently, in March of this year, researchers in Canada and the U.S. posited that “high and rising rates of maternal mortality in the United States are a consequence of changes in maternal mortality surveillance.”

The researchers pointed to the relatively new use of a “pregnancy checkbox” on death certificates issued by U.S. states, which the researchers said led to “an increase in misclassified maternal deaths.” 

“Identifying maternal deaths by requiring mention of pregnancy among the multiple causes of death shows lower, stable maternal mortality rates and declines in maternal deaths from direct obstetrical causes,” the researchers said.

Advocates argue that maternal mortality rates in the U.S. are nevertheless too high, particularly among certain demographics. The Canadian researchers, for instance, noted that death rates “were disproportionately higher among non-Hispanic Black women.”

The U.S. bishops, meanwhile, similarly stressed “the racial disparities that impact women of color, particularly Black and Indigenous women,” with the prelates arguing that “poverty and economic stressors, racism, discrimination, family breakdown, and other forms of injustice” affect women and mothers throughout the country. 

“Women must have access to appropriate treatment for substance abuse disorders, mental illness, and mental health challenges, especially postpartum depression,” the bishops wrote, “and efforts must be made to understand and address the high rates of maternal mortality and morbidity.”

Health habits, poverty, family structure should all be addressed

Lester Ruppersberger, a retired OB-GYN and former president of the Catholic Medical Association, told CNA that women should prioritize consulting with physicians both before and during pregnancy to ensure healthy outcomes. 

“Once pregnant, early access and visits to OB-GYNs are important to evaluate/assess the health of the mother and identify risk factors and advise on how to have a healthy pregnancy and delivery,” he said. 

“We do have an ever-increasing overweight population compared to 20 years ago,” he said. “Drug and alcohol use/abuse, including marijuana, is still a problem.” 

“Maternal death rates are 2.5 times higher for Afro-American women and three times higher for Hispanic women overall,” he noted.

Scrafford, meanwhile, said that “many or even arguably most cases of maternal mortality are preventable.”

Many leading health authorities, he pointed out, opt for extreme measures such as abortion and sterilization to drive down the mortality rate. These options can create poor health problems of their own, he noted, while abortion itself creates “far more cases of mortality among unborn human beings than they reduce among women.”

He argued that “restoring fundamentals of health — at individual and family levels — would prove a more effective strategy for reducing maternal mortality than the aforementioned approaches which have already been failing for decades.”

“For individuals, improving nutrition, reducing sedentary lifestyles, and reducing stress are key components to reducing factors like obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, which increase the risks of maternal mortality,” Scrafford argued. 

“Poverty and poor access to health care are already recognized as barriers to those changes; however, the importance of the intact nuclear family in overcoming those barriers must be more prominently recognized in public policy.”  

“In my opinion the broken family dynamics which have plagued the U.S. over the past few decades have driven many of the demographic changes, as well as trends in delayed childbearing, which prove to be risk factors for maternal mortality, and yet little has been done to protect the family as an essential health determinant,” he said. 

Physicians can help, he argued, by “emphasizing to individuals the importance of nutrition and exercise to maintain good baseline health,” by “encouraging women to consider childbearing during the age ranges in which their risk is lowests,” and by promoting “the importance of the intact family as a health determinant.”

‘He’s coming!’: Joyous Eucharistic pilgrimage visits New York, crosses Brooklyn Bridge

Bishop Robert J. Brennan of Brooklyn holds the Eucharist as he enters Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral in Brooklyn, New York, on May 26, 2024. The visit was part of the New York leg of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. / Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

New York City, N.Y., May 27, 2024 / 17:11 pm (CNA).

The eastern route of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage marked one of its most anticipated early highlights Sunday in New York City, with stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the former home of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton before a scenic crossing of the Brooklyn Bridge.

On a breezy, sun-splashed day, the joyous, multilingual procession turned heads as it made its way through throngs of Memorial Day Weekend tourists — including sailors in their bright white uniforms taking in the sights during the city’s Fleet Week celebration.

Later in the day, pilgrims waiting outside the St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton Shrine on State Street reacted like star-struck celebrity spotters when they first caught sight of the procession approaching the Catholic landmark at the southern tip of Manhattan. 

“He’s coming! He’s coming!” several people shouted. “He’s here!”

When the monstrance finally arrived in front of the shrine, a group of pilgrims outside knelt on the sidewalk, some in tears.

Sunday’s procession signaled the start of the second full week of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, an ambitious, first-of-its-kind event spanning two months that culminates in mid-July at the National Eucharistic Congress in Indianapolis. The undertaking, aimed at reviving devotion to the Eucharist among U.S. Catholics, began on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, with pilgrims setting out from launch locations in Connecticut, Minnesota, Texas, and California.

After passing by Yankee Stadium and traveling through Central Park earlier in the weekend, the pilgrimage resumed Sunday with matins and lauds at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer on the Upper East Side and from there to St. Patrick’s for Trinity Sunday Mass with Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan stands at the altar during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Cardinal Timothy Dolan stands at the altar during Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

In his homily, Dolan spoke about the Eucharist as a gift that invites believers to deepen their participation in the life of the Holy Trinity.

“Every time we worthily receive our Lord in holy Communion we put another log on the fire of God’s life within us,” the cardinal said. 

“Every time we might feel somewhat listless or weak, sinful, worried, or desperate, we fan into a flame the wavering flicker of God’s life within [us] by receiving the second person of the Most Blessed Trinity, God the Son, Our Lord and Savior, in the most holy Eucharist,” he continued. 

“And … when we ask for an increase of sanctifying grace, our prayers are especially effective … when offered before the real presence of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament,” Dolan noted.

After Mass, the Eucharist was processed in a monstrance outside the cathedral to the front steps on Fifth Avenue, where Dolan knelt in prayer and then gave a benediction. 

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York holds the Eucharist aloft as he blesses pilgrims outside the entrance to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. The landmark church was a stop on National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York holds the Eucharist aloft as he blesses pilgrims outside the entrance to St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City on May 26, 2024. The landmark church was a stop on National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

A day of ‘great joy’

With Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, holding the monstrance aloft, the procession headed south from St. Patrick’s for another two hours to St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street.

There, pilgrims rested in the pews while Father Roger Landry, a regular contributor to EWTN News, gave a short talk on St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who converted to Catholicism there in 1805, and Venerable Pierre Toussaint, another heroic parishioner who lived in the early 1800s.

With Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, holds the monstrance carrying the Eucharist during a procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. The event was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
With Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, holds the monstrance carrying the Eucharist during a procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. The event was part of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

In addition to being a designated Eucharistic preacher as part of the nationwide revival campaign, Landry is one of 23 “perpetual pilgrims” who have committed to completing the entirety of their respective pilgrimage route.

“It was a great emotion when we arrived at St. Peter’s Church,” said Sister Cecilia of the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of the Infant Jesus, a nun from Bologna, Italy, now based in New Jersey.

“I have done many pilgrimages, and there is always this great joy when you arrive at one of these places. Every pilgrimage place is different. It gives hope in your spiritual life,” Sister Cecilia told CNA.

Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, blesses pilgrims with the Eucharist outside the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton in Lower Manhattan on May 26, 2024. The shrine was a stop on the New York City leg of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Bishop Gerardo Colacicco, an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, blesses pilgrims with the Eucharist outside the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton in Lower Manhattan on May 26, 2024. The shrine was a stop on the New York City leg of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

The next stop was the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, where the future American saint — for whom the eastern pilgrimage route is named — lived from 1801 to 1803, after the bankruptcy of her husband William’s business. Sister of Life Gianna Maria spoke inside the packed shrine about about the saint as a model of perseverance in suffering and trust in divine providence.

On to Brooklyn

From there, the procession made its way to the Brooklyn Bridge. A crowd of about a thousand people moved through the streets of the Financial District singing behind the monstrance: nuns and priests from different orders, young people, the elderly, and mothers and fathers pushing baby strollers. A large percentage of the crowd was Hispanic, with groups singing in both English and Spanish.

Pilgrims cross the Brooklyn Bridge during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Pilgrims cross the Brooklyn Bridge during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

As the pilgrims crossed the iconic bridge, U.S. Navy ships could be seen in nearby New York Harbor.

At the midpoint of the span, the procession paused for a benediction, after which Colacicco handed the monstrance to Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, the procession stopped briefly at Our Lady of Lebanon Maronite Cathedral. 

“We came with over 300 pilgrims from Long Island with Bishop John Barres [of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York]. Most of our pilgrims traveled on public transportation to get there. This was a community of our local Church joining with our universal Church,” said Father Matthew Browne, director of the office of evangelization and catechesis for the Rockville Centre Diocese.

Bishop Gerardo Colacicco of the Archdiocese of New York hands a monstrance to Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession across the Brooklyn Bridge on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Bishop Gerardo Colacicco of the Archdiocese of New York hands a monstrance to Bishop Robert Brennan of Brooklyn during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession across the Brooklyn Bridge on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

“Our world does not understand the nature of true love. When we bring Christ in the Eucharist to the streets, we are bringing true love into the world that desires true love, even though they cannot name it,” Browne said.

Robert Bruder, another participant from Long Island, said he came back to the Catholic faith last year.

“It was very encouraging to see so many people witnessing to the truth of our faith, people of different backgrounds and cultures,” he said of his experience Sunday. 

“The world needs Christ and a strong Catholic Church to bear witness to the truth. Eucharist processions will encourage those who have lapsed in the faith to come back,” he said.

For Sister Cecilia, the Eucharistic procession across the Brooklyn Bridge was inspiring.

“People were very welcoming. Priests, nuns, families, the young, bishops, walking together is always a moment that generates closeness and the helping of each other — even if you don’t know each other,” she observed.

“I helped a woman push a baby stroller. Another person gave me a bottle of water. Becoming a pilgrim means being a Church on the outside. Normally, we are inside in adoration and our many activities as nuns,” she said.

“But today we were on the outside. We were with Jesus in the Eucharist. People became interested. They asked prayers from me. Some nuns gave out prayer cards. Others made the sign of the cross. This makes our group become bigger,” she said.

Pilgrims walk through Lower Manhattan during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA
Pilgrims walk through Lower Manhattan during a National Eucharistic Pilgrimage procession through New York City on May 26, 2024. Credit: Jeffrey Bruno/CNA

“New York City is a city which is far from spirituality, but today we were a part of something extraordinary,” said another pilgrim, city resident Maria Baldi.

“We had the opportunity to encounter Jesus among the people, among the tourists — not hiding inside a church or within a small group. We became witnesses with Jesus,” she said.

She noted how the procession that crossed the Brooklyn Bridge had to stay on one side of the bridge, while tourists crossed in the opposite direction.

“They saw people in prayer, and they saw the Blessed Sacrament. This generates curiosity and questions,” she said. “It makes you think. It made people stop and look.”

On Monday, Memorial Day, a small delegation including a handful of perpetual pilgrims was scheduled to travel with the Eucharist by boat for a blessing at the Statue of Liberty before continuing to Perth Amboy in New Jersey.

‘It pains me to leave’: Pope Francis accepts resignation of Argentinian archbishop

Former La Plata Archbishop Gabriel Antonio Mestre. / Credit: La Capital Mar del Plata

CNA Staff, May 27, 2024 / 08:37 am (CNA).

The Holy See on Monday said Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of La Plata, Argentina, Archbishop Gabriel Antonio Mestre after the prelate had served in that role for less than a year.

The Vatican said in a press statement on Monday that the Holy Father “has accepted the resignation from the pastoral care of the metropolitan archdiocese of La Plata, Argentina, presented by Archbishop Gabriel Antonio Mestre.” The archbishop had been appointed to that role in July of last year and installed in September.

The Holy See did not give a reason for Mestre’s resignation. In a statement posted to the archdiocese’s Facebook on Monday, meanwhile, Mestre said he was “conscious of my weakness and the human weakness of the beautiful Church that is my home and my family” as he resigned.

“A few days ago, the Holy See summoned me to Rome to talk about some aspects of the Diocese of Mar del Plata after my transfer to the Archdiocese of La Plata when I was appointed metropolitan archbishop by Pope Francis,” Mestre wrote.

The prelate had previously served as the bishop of the Mar del Plata Diocese from 2017 until his appointment to the archbishopric last year.

“In the Eternal City, after confronting some different perceptions with what happened in the Diocese of Mar del Plata from November 2023 to the present, Pope Francis asked me to resign from the See of La Plata,” Mestre wrote.

“With deep peace and total rectitude of conscience before God for how I acted, trusting that the truth sets us free (cf. Jn 8:32) and with filial and theological obedience to the Holy Father, I immediately wrote my resignation, which was accepted and made public today,” he said.

In a message addressed to the archdiocese itself, Mestre said he had been “very happy these eight and a half months” serving in the archbishopric.

“It pains me to leave, it pains me to leave you as pastor of this particular Church that is on pilgrimage in La Plata,” Mestre wrote, “but I am sure that God has much better plans that I cannot finish deciphering today.”

Mestre was born in 1968 in Mar del Plata in the province of Buenos Aires. He was ordained a priest of the diocese in 1997 and has a degree in theology with a specialization in sacred Scripture from the Universidad Católica Argentina.

He was appointed bishop of Mar del Plata in 2017 after serving as a parish priest at the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Cecilia, vicar general of the diocese, and a member of the presbyteral council.

He was also a professor of sacred Scripture at the Mar del Plata University School of Theology and founder of the diocesan biblical commission.

Where children are hungry: famine hot spots and Catholic groups that are helping

A woman and a girl in Tigray walk with supplies. The founder and CEO of the global school-feeding charity Mary’s Meals visited northern Ethiopia in March and confirmed reports of a widespread hunger crisis unfolding rapidly in Tigray in the aftermath of a two-year civil war and ongoing drought.  / Credit: Armstrong Studios/2024

CNA Staff, May 27, 2024 / 08:00 am (CNA).

Every night around the world approximately 350 million people, including a vast number of children, go to bed hungry. 

That’s according to the World Food Program (WFP), a major aid organization within the United Nations, which further estimates that nearly 49 million people are “on the brink of famine.”

Widespread hunger crises in some countries have lasted for many years, such as those in places like Ethiopia and Yemen. Other widespread hunger crises have exploded in some countries, such as Ukraine and Gaza, relatively recently. Regardless, famine and starvation remain largely underreported given the seriousness and breadth of the problem. 

Large Catholic aid organizations such as Catholic Relief Services have sounded the alarm about the danger of famine for years. CNA spoke with several other Catholic groups tirelessly engaged in feeding the hungry about the causes of and solutions to famine. 

‘God’s given us an abundance’ 

“Famine,” along with the commonly used term “food insecurity,” can be abstract concepts to grasp.

Food insecurity — defined by the WFP as the lack of regular access to enough nutritious food for healthy growth and development — can, of course, strike people anywhere in the world, even in highly developed nations like the U.S. But certain countries or regions in the world have a high proportion of their population that is food insecure for extended periods of time, leading in many cases to widespread deaths.

The United Nations uses a classification system to determine which countries fit the definition of “famine.” A famine classification is the highest on the scale — Phase 5 — and occurs when at least 20% of the population face extreme food shortages; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30%; and two out of 1,000 people die from starvation on a daily basis. This means that even before a famine is declared, people are dying of hunger.

Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow is the founder of Mary’s Meals, a Catholic organization that provides meals to more than 2.4 million children every school day in 17 countries across the globe. 

After being pushed out by conflict in the region, Mary’s Meals recently resumed the provision of thousands of free meals daily to schoolchildren in Tigray, northern Ethiopia, in a country where more than 20 million people rely on food assistance. Ethiopia’s government claimed as of January that at least 400 people had starved to death in Tigray and Amhara regions in recent months. 

It is estimated that 600,000 people died in the recent war in Tigray in an area that is overwhelmingly Orthodox Christian. 

MacFarlane-Barrow told CNA this week that despite many years of improvement, hunger crises around the world have gotten more acute since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I can’t remember a time in all the years of Mary’s Meals when it felt like there were so many simultaneous food crises unfolding at the same time,” MacFarlane-Barrow told CNA. 

“All over the developing world, we see millions of people who are on the edge … because of rising food prices and because their income is not going up at the same pace, they’re falling over the edge. They simply can’t afford food … so much of it comes back to poverty.”

A boy about to be served a meal at Tsehafe Werdi Primary School, in Tigray, Ethiopia. The Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary's Meals, has provided meals to thousands of children through a school feeding program since 2017. March 2024. Armstrong Studios // 2024
A boy about to be served a meal at Tsehafe Werdi Primary School, in Tigray, Ethiopia. The Daughters of Charity, supported by Mary's Meals, has provided meals to thousands of children through a school feeding program since 2017. March 2024. Armstrong Studios // 2024

Mary’s Meals largely operates in what MacFarlane-Barrow calls “the darkest places, the places where children are suffering the most — where children are suffering most acutely from malnutrition.” 

They use locally sourced ingredients whenever possible and rely heavily on the local Daughters of Charity to cook the food, but human conflict and climate events such as droughts and floods can seriously hamper their work. 

MacFarlane-Barrow said the schools where they operate in Tigray and elsewhere provide hope, and providing free meals at the schools helps to provide an incentive for students to get educated. This leads to positive ripple effects that they’ve seen have enormous impact through generations, he said. 

“None of this hunger we’re talking about, none of it is inevitable … There’s no reason why any single child in this whole world could go a day without food or be hungry in this world of plenty, in this world where God’s given us an abundance, more than we need,” MacFarlane-Barrow said. 

“When we give, when we share what we’ve been given with other people in need, it makes us more fully human. I think it helps us become more the people God made us to be.”

‘The difference between life and death’

Landlocked and slightly smaller than Texas, the majority-Christian nation of South Sudan consistently ranks near the very bottom on the list of most developed countries. Despite the rich agricultural potential of the region, hunger is widespread. Conflict, corruption, and widespread poverty make for enormous challenges in the young country — young not only because it was formed only in 2011 but also because the life expectancy is a mere 59 years. 

South Sudan has the largest refugee crisis in Africa with more than 2 million IDPs (internally displaced people) due to conflict, insecurity, and environmental challenges, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported in 2022. Thousands of homeless children — most orphaned by the war — roam the streets of South Sudan’s major cities. There are also more than 2 million South Sudanese refugees living in neighboring countries. 

Pope Francis’ historic visit to South Sudan in early 2023 was a galvanizing event that shed an international spotlight on a beloved but severely ailing country

Matt Smith, vice president of strategic partnerships and development at the Washington, D.C.-based Sudan Relief Fund, which has worked in the region for the past 25 years, told CNA last week that South Sudan has recently been hit by alternating weather extremes — severe drought followed in many cases by severe rains. 

“Food insecurity, especially in a place like South Sudan, is still the difference between life and death,” Smith noted.

“Often, even if there is not an official designation of famine per se, the sheer volume of people in certain communities that are food insecure still, I think, necessitates urgent action just as much as if there were an official famine designation.”

Clean water well supported by the Sudan Relief Fund. Sudan Relief Fund
Clean water well supported by the Sudan Relief Fund. Sudan Relief Fund

After devastating civil wars from 1955–1972 and 1983–2005, fighting began again in 2013 following the country’s 2011 independence. Both sides have been accused of serious atrocities over the course of the conflict, including the raping of women, killing of civilians, and recruitment of child soldiers.

Many people in South Sudan have been internally displaced by the fighting repeatedly and have had to start their lives over multiple times. They often simply need access to simple farming tools and resources to do their jobs and feed their families, Smith said.

“South Sudan, especially in the western part of the country, has incredible access to land that should be able to be used to grow crops, to feed people en masse … There’s a deep history amongst many of the peoples across South Sudan that know how and have survived off the land for many years. It’s just a matter of making sure that they have proper tools and resources available to them … in spite of some of these challenges like the fighting and the droughts and the flooding and things like that,” he said. 

Pan Ngath Orphanage (run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity) in Rumbek, South Sudan. Sudan Relief Fund
Pan Ngath Orphanage (run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity) in Rumbek, South Sudan. Sudan Relief Fund

In their relief work, Sudan Relief Fund’s main partner is the local Catholic Church, whose leaders are able to act as effective, credible partners to deliver aid dollars where they are most needed, responding to urgent needs on the ground. But because basic infrastructure in South Sudan is incredibly underdeveloped and much of the terrain is challenging, their work isn’t easy. 

Still, Smith said it is always inspiring to him to visit the country and see the joy and resilience of the people. 

“What stood out to me was just the incredible resilience of people in this part of the world and the mental and physical strength in some of the harshest conditions on earth,” he said. 

“And yet still there’s a smile on their face and still they’re willing to talk to me and still they’re willing to share their story with me. And so I think [that is] one of the things that’s shown through.”

‘Do something that is going to be lasting’

Food insecurity and hunger can strike even in countries where famine hasn’t been declared. In those countries, long-term assistance is often needed to help people build resilience and feed themselves and their families. 

In central Kenya, several years of drought plus recent torrential flooding has exacerbated food insecurity. Based in the town of Meru, Wanjiku Marius is a coordinator for Unbound, a Catholic-founded U.S. charitable organization that assists 6,400 beneficiaries in the region, mostly mothers. 

Ninety percent of those beneficiaries live in a semi-arid region, and most families have small-scale farms that they use to feed themselves. They rely heavily on rainfall, and drought conditions have affected the farmers’ ability to grow the staple crops of maize, bananas, and beans as well as the availability of farm jobs. 

Marius said Unbound facilitates cash transfers to the mothers to assist with nutrition, home repair, and education and that they encourage the farmers to plant drought-tolerant crops like sorghum and millet. The biggest need, she said, is water. 

“The families in that region are very hardworking. It’s a very hardworking community. So what they lack is just that basic necessity,” she said, adding that Unbound is able to “do something that is going to be lasting” by assisting with the pumping of water from wells. 

A big problem at the moment, however, is an excess of water from the recent flooding. Marius said “maybe about 100 people” out of their beneficiaries have been affected by the recent flooding, which has destroyed homes, crops, and infrastructure vital for mobility. 

Peter Ndungo, who also works for Unbound as program coordinator for its Nairobi project, currently oversees the serving of 12,174 beneficiaries in 11 regions, the furthest of which is four hours from Nairobi. He said the big capital city of Nairobi depends heavily on the “breadbasket” of Kenya, where many of Marius’ beneficiaries live. 

He requested prayers for those devastated by the drought and floods, and said Unbound is able to help the families they serve in part through a savings and credit cooperative that allows people without access to credit to get low-interest loans. The co-op is funded through money from Unbound’s sponsors.

“Sponsorship money will help them balance between educating their children and also having a well-balanced meal,” Ndungo told CNA. “Food security is a major problem in our city and also in areas where we serve the rural communities.”

From Hinduism to Catholicism: How Blessed Carlo Acutis inspired a man to convert

Rajesh Mohur pictured with Carlo Acutis on the day of his confirmation. / Credit: Photo courtesy of Ignatius Press

Rome Newsroom, May 27, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

On May 23, Pope Francis recognized a miracle attributed to the intercession of Blessed Carlo Acutis, paving the way for him to become the first millennial saint.

The Italian computer-coding teenager who died of cancer in 2006 is known for his great devotion to the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. His witness inspired his own parents to return to practicing the Catholic faith and his Hindu au pair to convert and be baptized.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the book “Blessed Carlo Acutis: A Saint in Sneakers” by CNA Rome Correspondent Courtney Mares.

Blessed Carlo Acutis inspired the son of a Brahman Hindu priest to be baptized as a Catholic through the young boy’s joyful witness to Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist and his love for the poor.

In an interview, Rajesh Mohur shared the story of his spiritual journey and how he came to know Acutis, the computer-coding teen who was the first millennial beatified in the Catholic Church and a patron of the [August 2023] World Youth Day.

Mohur grew up on a small island in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Africa, about 500 miles east of Madagascar. Like most of Mauritius’ population, Mohur was a Hindu. He grew up speaking Creole and studying Sanskrit, the ancient language used in Hindu scriptures.

The Mohur family was of the Brahman priestly caste, the highest of the four castes in Hindu society. Mohur’s father was a Hindu priest who served as the president of the Hindu Association in Mauritius. 

Mohur recalled: ‘‘[My father] used to teach me from the early beginning about all of their prayers ... about the scriptures, Indian scriptures.”

At the age of 16, Mohur’s father sent him to India to continue his education in Gujarat, the city where Mahatma Gandhi was born. During his time in India, Mohur was even more fully immersed in Hindu culture and religious practice.

‘‘I’ve been to so many temples. I met so many gurus in the meditation center, and I met swamis,” Mohur said. 

‘‘I witnessed all of those places. It was peaceful, you know. Nice. But your life doesn’t change. ... I was in search of a living God.’’

‘‘My journey was always to find something that ... from myself, deep down, I could not fulfill.”

After he was accepted to a university in Rajasthan, Mohur ended up staying in India, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in physics. He was planning to enroll in a master’s degree program in England when he received news that his father had died. Because his family was having financial problems, he felt compelled to go back to Mauritius to help his family.

Mohur increased his devotion to his Hindu prayers after the death of his father. He prayed every day, often with a sense of anger and bitterness. ‘‘I always prayed: ‘Why am I in such a situation?’’’ he said. 

At that time, work was hard to find in Mauritius. Mohur had heard that Italy was not as strict as some other countries with work visas at the time, so he immigrated there to find work in the mid-1980s. After more than a decade of living and working in Italy, Mohur was employed by the Acutis family in December 1995 to help take care of Carlo.

‘‘And I met Carlo, such a small child,’’ Mohur remembered.

His first impression of Acutis, with his brown curly hair, was that he looked like the little cherubs seen in paintings and sculptures around Milan. On his second day working for the family, Mohur remembered that little Carlo approached him with a big smile and a gift — a piece of chewing gum.

On rainy days, Acutis would sometimes watch videotapes of cartoons based on the Bible and the lives of the saints together with Mohur, who watched with some interest because he had not had much exposure to Catholicism.

After Acutis made his first Communion at the age of 7, Mohur would walk with him to the church around the corner from his house for Mass or to pray on his way to and from school. 

Mohur observed how young Acutis’ behavior changed when he entered a church. While Acutis prayed in front of the tabernacle, Mohur would quietly sit in the back and watch the young boy as he prayed earnestly.

‘‘His behavior changed when he was inside the church, with all respect. He knew that there was something different where Jesus lives. ... That touched my heart ... when I saw Carlo’s behavior,’’ he said.

Acutis was eager to talk to Mohur about the things that he loved: heaven, the Mass, and the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. He explained everything with ‘‘such a sweetness,” Mohur said. 

‘‘He talked always about the Eucharist, Jesus, how he suffered for us ... sacrificed his life for us,’’ Mohur said. ‘‘Carlo, he told me that ... wherever you go, you may find Jesus present in Flesh, Soul, and Blood [in the tabernacle].’’

Mohur also observed Acutis’ care and concern for others. He said that young Carlo once gathered up his toys, including some nice Christmas presents from his grandparents and parents, and asked Mohur to accompany him to the park to sell his toys to give the money to the poor. 

‘‘He collected the money, and there were some poor people lying there in front of the church. They were sleeping on the floor during winter. It was quite cold. ... He said that they were suffering, you know. They needed help,” Mohur said. 

‘‘When I saw Carlo’s acts, you know, of such a small child, then I got converted.’’

Acutis helped Mohur learn how to pray the rosary and invited him to pray it together with him and his parents. 

“He had formed the habit ... of reciting the holy rosary every night before going to bed,’’ Mohur remembered. 

Acutis told Mohur that a person can pray the rosary without being baptized, but only practicing Catholics can receive the holy Eucharist. Acutis explained that the Eucharist is the culmination of charity and that the virtues are acquired through a sacramental life. 

‘‘He knew the Catechism of the Catholic Church almost by heart and explained it so brilliantly that he managed to excite me about the importance of the sacraments,” Mohur said.

‘‘So, slowly, slowly ... he used to tell me the importance of baptism and so many other things also,’’ he added. ‘‘All those experiences changed my life. And I could see the living God.’’

Four years after first meeting Acutis, Mohur was baptized. He was in his late 30s at the time, and as an adult entering the Catholic Church, he received at once all the Catholic sacraments of initiation: baptism, first Communion, and confirmation in a Mass at Acutis’ parish in 1999.  

The Acutis family threw a party afterward for Mohur and his friends, sharing sweets and snacks at their apartment. Mohur let Carlo pick where to go out for dinner. He said that Carlo proposed: ‘‘Let’s go to the Chinese restaurant today because it’s a special day.’’ 

Mohur joked in reply: ‘‘It’s special for me, but it’s more special for you because you like Chinese food.’’ Joking aside, Acutis later told his parents: ‘‘There are many people who do not realize what an infinite gift it is to receive baptism.’’

After his baptism and first Communion, Mohur joined Acutis in attending daily Mass, but as a full participant in Communion rather than as an observer.

When Mohur’s mother came from Mauritius to visit her son in Milan a few years later, Acutis invited Mohur’s mom to come with them to Mass; she said afterward that she did not understand anything. Besides having little familiarity with the Catholic faith, Mohur’s mom did not speak Italian, so Acutis would speak with her in English.

He would sit in the kitchen with Mohur’s mother and tell her in English about Jesus and the Catholic faith. He told her the story of the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France, in such a compelling way that she wanted to visit the pilgrimage site. With the help of the Acutis family, Mohur’s mother stayed in Lourdes for a week. 

When she returned to Mauritius, she asked to be baptized. After her baptism, Mohur’s mother visited the sick in Mauritius and prayed with them, using some of the holy water from Lourdes. 

‘‘That was Carlo’s magic,’’ Mohur said. ‘‘He could convert me and my mom, too.’’

This story was first published on May 30, 2023, and has been updated.

No reason to be cynical about celebrity conversions, Bishop Barron and others say

Russell Brand, Candace Owens, and Shia LeBeouf. / Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Recording Academy; Jason Davis/Getty Images; and Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Ann Arbor, Michigan, May 27, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

The phenomenon of celebrity conversions to the faith has taken center stage, especially on social media, and they have been widely welcomed by prominent Catholic clergy and commentators.

Going viral on X (formerly Twitter), Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms has been news about popular actors and political activists, among others, who have joined the Catholic faith or otherwise announced their conversions to Christianity.

Their ranks include actor Shia LaBeouf, who was raised by a Jewish mother but entered the Catholic Church in 2023 and was confirmed by Bishop Robert Barron. LaBeouf, 37, played the title character in “Padre Pio,” the 2022 movie about the famed Italian friar who received the stigmata. Political commentator and media personality Candace Owens, 35, who has recently faced accusations of antisemitism, also announced last month on X that she had “come home” to the Catholic Church.

The phenomenon has not been limited to well-known Americans such as LaBeouf and Owens. They also include Dutch lawyer and activist Eva Vlaardingerbroek, 27, who has termed the Catholic faith as the “most powerful weapon” to allay moral relativism, and 48-year-old British actor Russell Brand.

As Vlaardingerbroek became involved in politics in her native Netherlands, she said in an April 2023 interview with National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner: “I wholeheartedly realized that we aren’t just fighting a political fight (right vs. left), but that we are dealing with a spiritual fight (good vs. evil).” She cited Professor Peter Kreeft among those who inspired her in her conversion. 

In the case of Brand, he announced on social media that he was baptized in England’s River Thames on April 28, sharing a photograph of his baptism, where he was accompanied by media personality and evangelical Christian Bear Grylls. He did not reveal who baptized him. Catholics and Orthodox Christians are typically not baptized in bodies of water such as rivers. According to canon law, “apart from a case of necessity, the proper place of baptism is a church or oratory.” 

The news of Brand’s conversion was also met with controversy because it came just months after he was accused of rape and sexual assault by several women in reports filed by British media. Brand denied the accusations during an interview with U.S. media personality Tucker Carlson. 

In a recent video, Brand was seen praying the rosary, saying that it had been given to him by his friend “Joe,” who also taught him the prayers. Brand’s wife of six years, author Laura Gallacher, is a Catholic. Along with fellow actors Mark Wahlberg and Jonathan Roumie, Brand has promoted the Catholic prayer app Hallow. He has also said that he has watched videos by Catholic priest Father Mike Schmitz.

Brand said he was “changed, transitioned” by the baptism but realizes that some observers may be cynical about his profession of faith because “people see me as a celebrity.” 

CNA reached out to several Catholic observers of the phenomenon, themselves prominent in social and other media, for their take. Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire and one of the most-followed Catholics on social media, told CNA that when he heard of Brand’s conversion and baptism, he was reminded of the parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel of Luke, in which Christ concluded “there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than 90 righteous persons who need no repentance.”

Noting that Brand is a public figure, Barron said that it is “not really shocking that his conversion is a public matter, and given, again in Brand’s own words ‘for someone like me associated with a decadent, hedonistic lifestyle, a move like this is surprising.’”

Barron went on to say: “I would add for some, it is also unsettling because it reminds us that Christ himself revealed that his primary mission is the reconciliation of sinners, and as such this is the mission of Christ’s followers as well. The Church is not a closed society for the perfectly virtuous, but it is instead a refuge for sinners.”

Barron said he found Brand’s explanation for religious awakening to be “striking,” quoting the Englishman’s statement that “‘the figure, the personage, the presence of Christ became overwhelming, unavoidable, welcome, and necessary.’ This apparent quickening of faith in the Lord Jesus compelled him to seek baptism.”

“Many Christians will recognize in Brand’s testimony a similar experience,” Barron said. “But they will also see in Brand’s acknowledgement of his own continued imperfections the truth that we are all sinners who are the recipients of an amazing, undeserved grace.”

In an interview with CNA, Monsignor Charles Pope — a priest of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and regular contributor to the National Catholic Register — said: “We shouldn’t be cynical. Sometimes when negative things happen in their lives, that’s when they turn to God. So I would first assume good faith on their part.” 

As to the reason for the uptick in the number of prominent figures joining the Catholic Church, Pope said: “I think it comes down to the current situation in the world today that is spiritually empty. People are searching for meaning because man is a religious animal. Some are returning to the sources that we hold most sacred. I think that’s where it comes from.”

Pope added: “After a while, after all the faddishness, movements, and things coming and going, people begin to say, ‘Well, things seem to change every six months. Why don’t I stick to  something more stable’ as they look for deeper meaning. That’s how I understand these kinds of conversions. For all our troubles in the Church, we have a solid base of meaning.”

Meanwhile, Rob Corzine, vice president of academic programs at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and host of EWTN’s “Genesis to Jesus” with Dr. Scott Hahn, offered a nuanced analysis. “There are two dangers to beware of. First, some are inclined to be cynical about celebrities’ sincerity. We should avoid that and rejoice over the conversions of the famous just as we would anyone else,” Corzine said.

“However, the second trap is to rush a brand-new convert onto a stage and try to make them a spokesperson for the faith, to exploit their platform or access to media. That too we must avoid,” Corzine cautioned. “There is always a great deal of learning and growing to do for new Catholics. In the public eye is not really the best place for that.”

Brand himself seemed to echo Corzine when he said: “This is new for me. I’m learning. And I will make mistakes. But this is my path now. And I already feel incredibly blessed.”

6 easy activities to help children understand Memorial Day

Flags for Memorial Day in the United States of America. / Credit: Shutterstock

National Catholic Register, May 27, 2024 / 04:00 am (CNA).

Memorial Day marks the cultural beginning of summer in the United States, and in the midst of all the fun of the three-day weekend, it’s easy for kids to think of this holiday as representing nothing more than the end of school and the beginning of barbecue and pool party season. So here are some ideas that gently introduce children to the deeper meaning of Memorial Day.

1. Create a memorial flower boat.

This is an easy but beautiful craft that uses materials that you probably have lying around the house. Though it is based on the Navy’s tradition of floating flowers out into the ocean to recall sailors whose lives were lost at sea, it could be used to honor fallen soldiers from any branch of the military.

2. Write a letter to a soldier.

Talk to your children about what our men and women in uniform do for our country, then have them write a letter or draw a picture to send to someone who is currently in the military.

3. Take flowers to a veterans cemetery.

Check online to see if there’s a veteran’s cemetery near you. If there is, consider stopping by with a bouquet of flowers on your way to your Memorial Day plans.

4. Make a pin for a veteran you know.

If you have a friend or family member who is a veteran, have the kids make one of these pretty pins to honor the service he or she provided to our country. This is a good opportunity to talk about where this person served, why he or she was there, and to mention the fact that some of this person’s fellow soldiers were not so fortunate as to make it back home to their families.

5. Make an American flag cake.

You won’t have any problem convincing your kids to help make this Memorial Day cake that is as delicious as it is easy to put together. Working together in the kitchen is always a great opportunity for family bonding moments, and in the process of icing the cake and laying out the flag pattern, chat with your kids about what the American flag represents and all the people who have given their lives to defend it.

6. Say a prayer for the souls of departed soldiers.

The easiest suggestion of all: Simply take a few moments today and have your family pause to say a prayer for the repose of the souls of all the men and women who gave their lives in the service of our country.

This article was originally published by the National Catholic Register on May 30, 2011, and has been updated and adapted by CNA.

World Children’s Day: Pope Francis instills key lesson on Holy Spirit at Mass with children

Pope Francis greets thousands of children and their families as he makes his way through St. Peter's Square during the first World Children's Day, Sunday, May 26, 2024. / Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

Vatican City, May 26, 2024 / 13:15 pm (CNA).

After an exuberant kickoff event on Saturday for the first World Children’s Day, Pope Francis gathered with tens of thousands of children in St. Peter’s Square for Mass on this feast of the Holy Trinity on Sunday, May 26. A piercing early summer sun moved everyone — from nuns to the boys’ choir — to shade their heads with colorful hats.

Thousands gather in St. Peter's Square in Rome on Sunday, May 26, 2024, for the first World Children's Day with Pope Francis. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
Thousands gather in St. Peter's Square in Rome on Sunday, May 26, 2024, for the first World Children's Day with Pope Francis. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

The creation of a World Children’s Day was announced by the pope on Dec. 8, 2023, at the midday Angelus. The idea for it was suggested to the pope by a 9-year-old boy in an exchange shortly before World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, last August. 

Among the special guests at the Mass was Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who together with her daughter Ginevra met the pope briefly before the Mass.

With this first event complete, Francis announced at the end of the festivities today that the next World Children’s Day will be held in September 2026.

Among the special guests at the Mass for the first World Children's Day was Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who together with her daughter Ginevra met the pope briefly before the Mass on Sunday, May 26, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
Among the special guests at the Mass for the first World Children's Day was Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who together with her daughter Ginevra met the pope briefly before the Mass on Sunday, May 26, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

The One who accompanies us

The Holy Father, smiling and clearly happy to be surrounded by children, completely improvised his homily, making it a brief and memorable lesson on the Holy Trinity.

“Dear boys and girls, we are here to pray together to God,” he began. But then counting on his fingers and enumerating, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he asked: “But how many gods are there?”As the crowd answered “one,” the pope praised them and started talking about each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

He began with God the Father — “who created us all, who loves us so much” — asking the children how we pray to him. They quickly answered “with the Our Father.”

Pope Francis went on to speak of the second person of the Trinity, after the children called out his name — Jesus — as the one who forgives all of our sins.

When he got to the Holy Spirit, the pope admitted that envisioning this person of the Trinity is more difficult.

“Who is the Holy Spirit? Eh, it is not easy,” he said.

“Because the Holy Spirit is God, he is within us. We receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, we receive him in the sacraments. The Holy Spirit is the one who accompanies us in life.”

Using this last phrase, the pope invited the children to repeat the idea a number of times: “He is the one accompanies us in life.”

“He is the one who tells us in our hearts the good things we need to do,” the pope said, having the kids repeat the phrase again: “He is the one who when we do something wrong rebukes us inside.”

The pope speaks to thousands of children and many others who gathered in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, May 26, 2024, for the first World Children’s Day on the feast of the Holy Trinity. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
The pope speaks to thousands of children and many others who gathered in St. Peter's Square on Sunday, May 26, 2024, for the first World Children’s Day on the feast of the Holy Trinity. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

The pope ended the homily thanking the children and also reminding them that “we also have a mother,” asking them how we pray to her. They answered “with the Hail Mary.” The pope encouraged them to pray for parents, for grandparents, and for sick children. 

“There are so many sick children beside me,” he said, as he indicated the children in wheelchairs near the altar. “Always pray, and especially pray for peace, for there to be no wars.”

Applauding the grandparents

The pope frequently urges young people to seek out their grandparents, and the give-and-take of his homily gave the impression of a beloved grandpa surrounded by his grandkids. He insisted that the kids quiet down for the time of prayer.

When the Mass concluded, and after praying the midday Angelus, the pope summarized the lessons of the homily: “Dear children, Mass is over. And today, we’ve talked about God: God the Father who created the world, God the Son, who redeemed us, and God the Holy Spirit … what did we say about the Holy Spirit? I don’t remember!”

The children needed no further invitation to answer loudly that “the Holy Spirit accompanies us in life.” Joking that he couldn’t hear well, the pope had them say it again even louder and then prayed the Glory Be with them.

Pope Francis speaks with a group of children in St. Peter's Square in Rome during the first World Day of Children on Sunday, May 26, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
Pope Francis speaks with a group of children in St. Peter's Square in Rome during the first World Day of Children on Sunday, May 26, 2024. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

The pope also asked for a round of applause for all the grandparents, noting that at the Presentation of the Gifts, a grandfather had accompanied a group of children who brought forward the bread and wine.

Dreaming and dragons 

After the closing procession, Italian actor Roberto Benigni took the stage for a lively and inspirational monologue that combined good humor and life lessons. 

While Benigni is known especially to the English-speaking world for his role in the Oscar-winning film “Life Is Beautiful,” in Italy he’s also known for his commentaries on important issues combined with his exuberant humor.

“When I was a boy, I wanted to be pope,” he told the audience.

Urging the children to read — “Kids need to read everything!” — he paraphrased G.K. Chesterton, who insisted that fairy tales are important: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed,” Chesterton said.

Italian actor Roberto Benigni speaks at the World Children's Day in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 26, 2024. He took the stage for a lively and inspirational monologue that combined good humor with a call for children to read and to dream. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA
Italian actor Roberto Benigni speaks at the World Children's Day in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on May 26, 2024. He took the stage for a lively and inspirational monologue that combined good humor with a call for children to read and to dream. Credit: Daniel Ibañez/CNA

“Dream!” Benigni urged the children. “It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. But I want to tell you a secret. You’ll tell me you know how to dream; you’ll say you just have to close your eyes, sleep, and dream. … No, no. I’ll tell you a secret — to dream, you don’t have to close your eyes. You have to open them! You have to open your eyes, read, write, invent.”

The actor emphasized the need to be peacemakers, saying that the Sermon on the Mount contains “the only good idea” that’s ever been expressed. War is the “most stupid sin,” he lamented.

“War must end,” Benigni insisted, going on to quote a famous author of children’s literature. “You will tell me: That is a dream, it is a fairy tale. Yes, it is, but as Gianni Rodari said, ‘Fairy tales can become reality, they can become true!’”

Meet the modern-day ‘devil’s advocate’ in the process of canonization

A view of the baldacchino underneath the central dome of St. Peter's Basilica. / Credit: Daniel Ibanez/CNA

ACI Prensa Staff, May 26, 2024 / 07:00 am (CNA).

Monsignor Alberto Royo Mejía is the promoter of the faith in the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints. His current function is, in fact, the same one that was formerly performed by the so-called “devil’s advocate” in the canonization processes. 

When and why was this name changed? Who exactly is, in effect, the “devil’s advocate”?

ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, was able to speak in Rome with Royo, who holds a doctorate in canon law and is a priest of the Diocese of Getafe in Spain, where he has been judicial vicar, episcopal delegate for the causes of saints, and pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in the town of Parla, south of Madrid.

Origin of the term

Royo explained to ACI Prensa that the name “devil’s advocate” is actually a popular designation, since Sixtus V did not establish this function using this term but rather “he was called that because he had to be the ‘bad guy in the movie,’ after all.” The role of the “devil’s advocate,” now the promoter of the faith, is to prepare in writing all possible arguments against the canonization of the individual.

“In a civil or criminal proceedings it would be what we more or less know as the prosecutor: the one who has to search for the truth in a special way, because here the only thing we are looking for is the truth, as in every proceeding, as in every investigation,” he emphasized.

The Spanish priest thus defined the canonization processes as “an investigation” whose objective is “to discern the will of God about a candidate for the altars.”

The priest explained that in this discernment “it’s essential that someone help search for the truth, because sometimes due to excessive affection, devotion, distraction, or other types of reasons, the [candidate] can be presented in an inappropriate way, because research or historical documentation are missing.” And it’s because “all people have defects; there is no saint who does not have any defects.” 

For these “defects” to come to light and be investigated, the “promoter of the faith,” the ancient “devil’s advocate” whose figure “emerged when Sixtus V established the Roman Curia,” is indispensable, he said.

However, the Spanish priest said that “today he is no longer called ‘devil’s advocate’ but rather the ‘prelate theologian.’ He continues to call himself a promoter of the faith, but the popular designation is no longer that of devil’s advocate — although the idea is the same.”

Evolution of the canonization process

In 1984, Pope John Paul II introduced a series of reforms to facilitate the canonization process and bring the system more in line with modern times.

According to the promoter of the faith, this was done “by a natural evolution of the process,” since, over the centuries, “the process had become increasingly legal and, nonetheless, the need was seen to also make it historic, since it was very similar to what the marriage annulment process or any process in the Church was like.”

“In fact,” he noted, “for centuries the work that the relators do today [which is a new figure that John Paul II established], was done by the auditors of the Rota, with which, between a process of canonization and a process of the Roman Rota [a tribunal] there was very little difference.”

Royo further explained that with the development of historical sciences, the need was seen to delve into the historical context of the causes.

“The development of psychological sciences also had a lot of influence. The psychology of a servant of God, of a candidate for the altars, influences the person... all of this was not taken into account before,” the priest explained.

For this reason, “a series of figures came into play who are today, for example, the relators,” he said.

“The relator is an intermediate figure between the diocesan phase, the material that arrives in Rome and the study done by the promoter of the faith.”

“The very valuable work of the relators is to prepare the cause,” he continued. “They already see the difficulties, the problems, and what must also be highlighted in each servant of God.” 

According to Royo, the relators “systematize the work and, when it reaches the promoter of the faith, and therefore the theological consultants, the cause is already very refined and very prepared.”

“This has greatly expedited the causes,” he pointed out, since without this figure the process “was like a very tight funnel” in which the causes “were stuck ... because only the promoter of the faith was in charge of studying them all.” 

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

New priest finds calling to young adult ministry through Ultimate Frisbee

Father Gregory Miller plays Ultimate Frisbee during the annual "Cassock Classic." / Credit: Father Gregory Miller

CNA Staff, May 26, 2024 / 06:00 am (CNA).

Father Gregory Miller is a recently ordained priest for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who discovered that he enjoyed working in young adult ministry while in seminary — all thanks to Ultimate Frisbee. 

He fell in love with the sport in high school and was a part of his school’s team, who went to the state championships several times. 

“When I was entering the seminary, I was sad that I wasn’t going to have an opportunity to keep playing ultimate,” Miller, 27, told CNA in an interview. 

However, the vocation director told Miller about the “Cassock Classic,” an annual Ultimate Frisbee tournament for all the young adult groups throughout the archdiocese. After the previous seminarian who ran the event discerned out of seminary, Miller was asked to take over.

“I’ve run it for the last nine years, with a break for COVID, [and] the event has only increased in size and popularity,” he explained. “It’s been a real blessing to be a part of that.”

Father Gregory Miller at his ordination at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on May 18, 2024. Credit: Joe Evans
Father Gregory Miller at his ordination at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on May 18, 2024. Credit: Joe Evans

The new priest believes organized sports plays an important role in young adult ministry, as does the opportunity to go on retreats and attend events such as Theology on Tap. 

Second-grade dream come true

Miller was in second grade when he knew that he wanted to be a priest — and on May 18 that second-grade dream came true. He was ordained a priest at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in downtown Philadelphia.

The youngest of four children, Miller grew up Catholic and attended Mass regularly with his family. His family are parishioners at Sacred Heart Church in Royersford, Pennsylvania, and all four children attended the parish’s school. It was there that Miller celebrated his first Mass as a newly ordained priest on May 19.

“It was really a beautiful celebration,” Miller said. “I was looking forward to being able to see the parish community. They have seen me grow up and really grow into this priestly role. They have been praying a lot for me over these years.” 

He added: “One of the thoughts I had during the Mass [was that]I was so humbled that I could give back the gift of the Eucharist to these people who have given me so many prayers and support throughout my time in the seminary.”

Father Gregory Miller at his ordination at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on May 18, 2024. Credit: Joe Evans
Father Gregory Miller at his ordination at the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia on May 18, 2024. Credit: Joe Evans

Miller shared that he looked up to the pastor of his parish growing up and remembers saying he wanted to become a priest for the first time when he was in second grade. However, when he was in fifth grade he remembers no longer saying that and became more interested in engineering. When he was in his junior year of high school, Miller saw all of his friends excited about applying to college and picking careers but he didn’t share in that excitement.

“I noticed that I wasn’t that excited about engineering and a little voice in my head reminded me about the priesthood,” he recalled. 

He spoke with his pastor Father Peter DiMaria, who played an important role in Miller’s vocation. DiMaria was the pastor of Miller’s home parish from the time he was in eighth grade until his third year in seminary. Knowing of his desire to enter the priesthood, DiMaria gave Miller books to read on the lives of the saints, gave him opportunities to serve at Masses, and took him to visit the seminary.

“He was a great role model for the priesthood and he really helped me discern my vocation,” Miller shared.

While discerning the priesthood during his junior year, Miller prayed daily asking God what he should do and visited the adoration chapel several times a week. After about eight months, he “felt Christ asking me to trust him.”

It was then he decided to enter St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. 

Now, Miller is preparing for his new assignment at St. Anastasia Catholic Church in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. 

“So far I’ve been hearing great things about this parish, and I can’t wait to start serving them,” he said.