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Man charged with arson in connection with Mission San Gabriel fire

Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles visits the scene of the fire at San Gabriel mission, July 11, 2020 / Jon McCoy/Angelus News

Washington D.C., May 5, 2021 / 22:00 pm (CNA).

A California man was charged with arson Tuesday in connection with a fire that ravaged a historic mission church in Los Angeles County last July.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, a church founded by St. Junipero Serra in 1771, suffered a devastating fire during the early morning hours of July 11, 2020. The fire destroyed the church’s roof and interior. The alleged arsonist, 57 year-old John David Corey, was charged in a Los Angeles Criminal Court on Tuesday.

Corey now faces two felony counts of arson of an inhabited structure and one count each of arson during a state of emergency, first-degree residential burglary, and possession of flammable material, according to NBC Los Angeles. He was known at the mission and had a history of conflicts with mission staff, law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times.

According to the San Gabriel Fire Department, Corey had already been arrested and sentenced to three years in prison for an unrelated incident when investigators pegged him as a person of interest in the Mission San Gabriel case.

"After a thorough investigation, investigators determined that Corey was responsible for the fire at the Mission San Gabriel,” the fire department said in a statement. 

The mission was the fourth mission founded by St. Junípero Serra, a Franciscan priest who founded a series of missions across California. Serra helped to convert thousands of native Californians to Christianity, and taught them new agricultural technologies.

San Gabriel would go on to be one of the most successful and productive of all the 21 California missions, and in 1781 would form the core of the city of Los Angeles.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in a statement provided to CNA, called the mission “a historic cornerstone and spiritual heart of Los Angeles and the Catholic community.”

The mission’s pastor, Fr. John Molyneux, said at a May 4 press conference following the announcement of Corey’s indictment, “We pledge our continued cooperation with the District Attorney’s office as we seek justice tempered with mercy.” 

“Our community of faith at the Mission is close-knit and has been rocked by this incident. For many life-long parishioners, this fire has been a little death. But we are resurrection people, and look ahead to the future with a renewed sense of hope and purpose,” he said.

Corey’s possible motive for starting the fire has not yet been publicly announced. Anonymous law enforcement officials speaking to the LA Times said Corey was known to the mission and had quarreled with staff members in the past, and harbored anger toward the Catholic Church. 

Corey is set to be arraigned— have the charges read to him— on May 18. 

Father Molyneux thanked the local fire department and the detective assigned to the case for their work, and echoed the words of Christ in encouraging the mission community to “pray for those who persecute you.” 

The Los Angeles archdiocese similarly encouraged prayers for Corey “that he may know God’s mercy and love.”

The fire began around 4 a.m. on July 11, and destroyed the roof and interior of the 250-year-old structure. Local firefighters said they responded to an initial fire alarm at 4:24 a.m.. By the time they arrived, smoke and flames were visible from outside the church.

Eventually, 50 firefighters battled the four-alarm fire, according to the Los Angeles Times. Local fire department spokesman Captain Antonio Negrete called the damage “heartbreaking.”

Prior to the fire, much of the artwork in the church had been removed as part of an ongoing restoration. The mission’s 250-year jubilee celebration is planned for September 2021.

A historic painting of Our Lady of Sorrows, depicting the Virgin Mary in a somber, dark landscape, was the only piece of artwork remaining in the church that survived the fire.

Many of Serra’s missions form the cores of what are today the state’s biggest cities— such as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

For Anthony Morales, tribal chief of the San Gabrielino Mission Indians and a parishioner of Mission San Gabriel, the damage caused by the fire was more than material.

“These are my roots,” Morales told Angelus News, holding back tears as he surveyed the scene last year hours after the fire had been contained.

“This is my church. All my ancestors are buried in the cemetery next door. Six thousand of my ancestors are buried on these grounds, and this is the church that they built. It’s just very devastating.”

The rebuilding effort at Mission San Gabriel is ongoing; currently the structure has a temporary wooden roof. 

Workers restoring the Mission have in the past year have made unexpected discoveries, such as walls painted with colorful designs that historians never knew existed, which were exposed under peeling layers of plaster. 

Workers also discovered previously unknown layers of old brick and slabs of stone mined from the San Gabriel Mountains under the mission’s wooden floors, which buckled under the weight of the firefighters’ water. 

The archdiocese said the mission’s newly designed roof is set to be finished by the end of August, ahead of the mission’s 250th anniversary on September 11th. 

“We are thankful for all of the people who have worked so earnestly in the Mission’s reconstruction,” the archdiocese concluded. 

Despite St. Serra’s record defending indigenous peoples, images of the saint have for years been focal points for protests and demonstrations across California. In 2020, numerous statues of the saint were torn down or vandalized by protestors.

Some California institutions, such as the University of San Diego, have put their statues of Serra in storage to protect them. Mission San Gabriel had put its images of Serra, including a bronze statue, into storage for this reason not long before the fire.

In Iowa, progress for pro-life constitutional amendment

Aykut Erdogdu/Shutterstock.

Des Moines, Iowa, May 5, 2021 / 21:01 pm (CNA).

Iowa lawmakers have laid the groundwork for a proposed state constitutional amendment to prevent recognition of abortion as a legal right, countering a state Supreme Court decision. The main questions now are whether the legislation will pass as soon as possible, and whether voters will back the amendment on a statewide ballot as early as 2024.

One pro-life group says it is important to pass the legislation during the current legislative year, which is expected to close soon.

“We’ve worked hard to educate Iowans and also advocate to our legislators that we feel very strongly in getting the Protect Life Amendment passed this session,” Maggie DeWitte, executive director of Iowans for Life, told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

The Iowa Supreme Court found a “right to abortion” under the state’s constitution in 2018. That ruling struck down a 72-hour waiting period for abortion, on the grounds that “a woman’s right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy is a fundamental right under the Iowa Constitution.” The proposed amendment would nullify the court’s finding.

DeWitte said the 2018 ruling was a “mistake” that was “even more extreme than Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 decision that mandated permissive abortion laws nationwide.

She said the amendment will allow Iowa voters and their elected representatives to make decisions about health and safety. Without the amendment, the state cannot prevent late-term abortions “even up to the point of birth.”

A proposed constitutional amendment must be approved by two consecutive legislative sessions before going to the ballot. The current legislative session will conclude in 2022.

The Iowa Catholic Conference has testified in support of the amendment, saying it would make the state constitution “abortion-neutral.”

“Without this change, if or when Roe v. Wade is struck down or federal law is modified, abortion will remain a fundamental right in Iowa,” the conference said in 2019. The state Supreme Court decision means strong scrutiny for “any regulation of abortion or efforts to restrict its public funding.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said the proposal would pass either this year or next year but this would not affect when it goes on the ballot.

The House version of the amendment was written on the principle, “simpler is better,” Holt told the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

“To defend and protect unborn children, we the people of the State of Iowa declare that this Constitution does not recognize, grant, or secure a right to abortion or require the public funding of abortion,” said the proposed amendment.

The Senate’s version also speaks about protecting “mothers and unborn children from efforts to expand abortion even to the day of birth.” It says the constitution “shall not be construed” to recognize abortion as a right or to require public funding of abortions.

The Senate version was approved on a 30-17 party-line vote.

Senate President Jake Chapman, R-Adel, said the nature of the proposal as a constitutional amendment means “we need to be very careful about what we propose and get language right.”

A language compromise has been reached, according to Hold and Chapman.

Possible debate over the wording could include efforts to create constitutional protections for abortion in cases where the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest or to preserve the life of the mother, the Cedar Rapids Gazette reports.

DeWitte advocated for speedy passage for the amendment.

“It's better for us to get it passed this session so we can work on some other important pro-life and pro-family bills in the next legislative session,” she said.

Abortion backers were critical of the effort.

Jamie Burch Elliott, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Advocates Iowa, said the proposed amendment is “laying the groundwork to ban abortion if Roe v. Wade is overturned.”

Elliott said that Planned Parenthood’s polling reports that only one-third of voters would vote for the amendment.

DeWitte said Iowans for Life’s polling reports that voters will favor the amendment when they understand it is “really about preventing unelected judges from forcing late-term abortion and taxpayer-funded abortion on Iowans.”

Reform may be coming to the chapter of St. Peter’s Basilica

Pope Francis prays the rosary before an icon of Our Lady of Help in St. Peter's Basilica May 1, 2021. / Daniel Ibanez/Vatican Pool.

Vatican City, May 5, 2021 / 20:19 pm (CNA).

That members of the chapter of St. Peter’s Basilica were prevented from participating in Pope Francis' rosary for the end of the pandemic has fueled speculations that the pope will reform both the chapter and the organization of St. Peter's Basilica.

The Chapter of St. Peter was established in 1043 by St. Leo IX. It was intended to guarantee a regular prayer in St. Peter and, in the earlier years, to assist the pope in managing the goods of St. Peter's patrimony.

The patrimony consists of several donations to the papacy, including real estate, in and outside Rome. According to a source who served as a member of the chapter, "it is complicated to give comprehensive figures of the patrimony. Management of an important chunk of it was already transferred to APSA."

The Chapter of St. Peter is chaired by the Archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica and is composed of him, the chapter's vicar, and 34 members. The members are chosen among the most remarkable personalities of the Catholic Church when they retire.

They are "professionals of prayer," according to Benedict XVI, who labeled them as such in 2007 during a private audience with the members of the chapter. The commitment to prayer is central in their activity. Until the middle of the 20th century, the chapter members had to be in the basilica on a daily basis to pray the hours, be in adoration, and serve in the liturgical celebrations.

Members of the chapter are now mainly involved on Sundays and feasts or in the commemoration of the Roman Pontiffs. They also take part in celebrations with the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica.

Some of them went to the Basilica May to participate in the rosary for the end of the pandemic presided by Pope Francis. The Italian newspaper Il Messaggero broke the news that the chapter members were denied access to the basilica.

Il Messaggero also stresses that the "members of the chapter seem to be Pope Francis' target" and adds that the Chapter of St. Peter is "one of those sectors the Pope wants to bring some order to."

According to a chapter source who spoke to CNA under condition of anonymity so as to speak freely, the rejection of the chapter members May 1 is not an indication of papal hostility against their members.

"They (the organizers) simply were not counting with their presence, and so there were no spots for them to sit," the source said.

Due to COVID restrictions, all the spots in the basilica are strictly regulated, and it is then harder to include people who are not on the list or who come unannounced.

But according to the same source, even if the episode was not linked to any perceived papal hostility to the chapter, its reform is underway.

The reform "will mostly deal on the role of the chapter members," the source told CNA, and explained that its members will keep their prayer duties in the basilica, and they will be more involved in liturgical celebrations. Since the Vatican has prohibited private celebrations at the basilica, chapter members will celebrate some of the authorized Masses.

The important changes, instead, will be coming on the financial side. The chapter members got a compensation for their services, funded directly with the revenue of St. Peter's patrimony. For some, this was a way to secure income to retired clerics, for others it was a contemporary form of sinecure. After the 2020 pandemic, Pope Francis cut their monthly salary. The members of the chapter were reimbursed for their service thanks to a solidarity fund set up by St. Peter's Basilica.

Most likely the rest of the real estate and goods belonging to St. Peter's patrimony will be transferred to APSA, which will be designed as a sort of Vatican central bank. At the end of the reform, all the Vatican investments will be centralized and managed by APSA.

The first dicastery transferring its funds to APSA has been the Secretariat of State. The process will also likely involve all the other Vatican dicasteries with their patrimony, such as the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and the Vatican City State Administration.

The reform of the Chapter of St. Peter will go along with a reform of the organization and schedule of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis already decided to forbid private Masses. Mauro Cardinal Gambetti, the new archpriest, wants to go further and have only two Masses per day, in Italian, broadcast by the Vatican communications service.

According to the CNA source, "these reforms have generated expected turmoil among the chapter members," but “there is very little, if anything, (we) can do about it.”

Montreal archbishop appoints ombudsman to oversee abuse complaints

Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral in Montreal, Canada. Credit: Travis Wise via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Montreal, Canada, May 5, 2021 / 19:01 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of Montreal announced Wednesday the appointment of an independent ombudsman, Marie Christine Kirouac, to receive all complaints of abuse or inappropriate conduct within the archdiocese.

The appointment continues the implementation of recommendations set forth in the Capriolo Report released in November 2020.

“We have a responsibility to report to the ombudsman any circumstance of abuse,” said Archbishop Christian Lépine of Montreal May 5. “It is essential we honor our commitment and remain vigilant. The appointment of the first ombudsman and the implementation of these new procedures will better enable us to protect the faithful and the wider community.”

Kirouac, a lawyer with almost 30 years of service and extensive experience in crisis intervention, will oversee the follow-up in each case. She will also provide a detailed report about the types of complaints at least once per year, and will make the report available to the public.

“It is my role to ensure that no form of abuse or inappropriate behavior will be tolerated in the Catholic Church,” Kirouac said. “I will ensure that any person who contacts me has a listening ear.”

Complaints will be accepted 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Complaints will be heard irrespective of the victim’s age at the time of the reported act. If the complainant is a minor and the abuse is physical or sexual in nature, the ombudsman will inform the Direction de la Protection de la Jeunesse (DPJ, Department of Youth Protection) in addition to referring the complaint to the advisory committee.

Upon receiving a complaint, Kirouac will determine if the action constitutes abuse or inappropriate behavior. Any complaint determined to fall under the category of abuse—sexual, physical, psychological, spiritual or financial—will be referred to a newly formed advisory committee composed of five lay members, including one victim and four professionals with various areas of expertise.

Since its introduction in November 2020, more than 50 percent of the Capriolo Report’s recommendations have already been implemented. Additional procedures were implemented Wednesday, including the responsibilities of the ombudsman and the position of the advisory committee.

Authored by Pepita G. Capriolo, a retired Québec Superior Court Justice, the report includes 31 recommendations in the areas of responsibility, accountability, transparency, formation, archives, and support of victims. The remaining recommendations in the report are expected to be implemented by the end of 2021.

The report concerns former diocesan priest Brian Boucher, who was ordained a priest in 1996 and worked in 10 Montreal churches as far back as the early 1980s. In January 2019 he was convicted of sexual assault of a minor in one case, and pleaded guilty to sexual assault of another minor. He was later sentenced to eight years in prison.

Kirouac’s position as ombudsman began May 3 and will continue without a defined term limit. A team of individuals yet to be named will support Kirouac should the number of complaints necessitate additional personnel.

“We must dutifully intervene to prevent suffering,” Archbishop Lépine said. “All victims will be welcomed with compassion and receive care.”

Archbishop Cordileone after stabbing of Asian women: "we must stop hating one another"

Archbishop of San Francisco Salvatore Cordileone / Archdiocese of San Francisco

San Francisco, Calif., May 5, 2021 / 18:26 pm (CNA).

Most Reverend Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco, called on local Catholics to "engage in prayer, adoration and fasting for an end to violence and hatred," after two Asian women were stabbed at a bus stop in downtown San Francisco on Tuesday at around 5:00 pm.

In a statement released to CNA, Archbishop Cordileone wrote, "It happened again. This time, two Asian women were stabbed on the streets of San Francisco in broad daylight. How can this be happening? Our beloved city is deteriorating. The Tenderloin is the center of homelessness and poverty. Solutions are going to require new and creative ideas, and a hard and honest look at some very painful realities." 

"It will not happen without us all uniting in deep love for our city and its people," the Archbishop also said. 

"We must stop hating one another. We must recognize in the other not an object of violence or hate, but a brother or sister made in the image and likeness of God. This is a big challenge for all of us. I ask San Francisco Catholics to engage in prayer, adoration and fasting for an end to violence and hatred. St. Francis, patron of San Francisco, pray for us," he concluded.

Both victims were transported to nearby hospitals, one of them, an 85-year-old woman, had to undergo surgery.

Patricia Lee, a witness who was working at a flower stand near the attack, told KGO-TV that the man who attacked the women “walked away like nothing happened, like Sunday morning.”

Two hours later, San Francisco police arrested 54-year-old Patrick Thompson, currently in police custody.

Upcoming Courage conference to focus on St. Joseph

St. Joseph and the Christ Child, by Guido Reni / Public domain

Washington D.C., May 5, 2021 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

The Catholic apostolate Courage International will be focusing its upcoming annual conference on St. Joseph, under the theme “St. Joseph: Model of Courageous Love.” 

Courage is an apostolate that provides pastoral support, prayer support, and fellowship for people who experience same-sex attraction. Its 34th annual conference will take place in July at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. 

“It is exciting that, by focusing our attention on Saint Joseph, our Courage and EnCourage apostolates will be united with the heart of the universal Church, which is celebrating the Year of Saint Joseph together in many ways,” said Fr. Philip Bochanski, executive director of Courage International, in an interview with CNA. 

“Saint Joseph is a model, an encouragement, and an intercessor for our members who strive to make a sincere gift of themselves and bear much fruit as disciples,” he said.

The July 15-18 conference will include talks on a variety of topics including pastoral ministry, spirituality, and ways to support family members and loved ones who experience same-sex attraction. Participants will be able attend daily Mass and Eucharistic Adoration, and will have opportunities to go to confession.

Commenting on this year’s theme - during the Year of St. Joseph - Bochanski noted that St. Joseph initially expected a “normal” marriage with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“When he [Joseph] became more fully aware of his vocation, the purpose and plan for which he had been created,” Bochanski said, “he was willing to sacrifice the intimate sexual expression of love in his married life, in order to live out all the other responsibilities of being a husband with greater dedication and self-sacrifice.”

Bochanski said that Saint Joseph's integration and integrity allowed him to make a total gift of himself, to Mary, and ultimately to the plan of God. 

“This sacrifice bore fruit that he could never have foreseen, because it was in Joseph's home and in the heart of his family that God's promise of redemption was kept and the Savior entered into the world,” he said. 

He explained that chastity does not mean repressing human feelings and emotions, but rather requires understanding them in light of God's plan for marriage and sexuality, which always includes the complementarity of men and women. 

“Accepting and living this truth, which is rooted in their God-given identity and calling, involves sacrificing some intimate desires and relationships,” he said. 

Bochanski told CNA the result of this sacrifice is a full, fruitful and happy life where friendship, affection and charity can all flourish, because sexual desire is properly integrated. 

EnCourage is a sub-organization of Courage, and provides support for families and friends of persons who identify as LGBT. It aims to teach them how to reach out to their loved ones with compassion and understanding.

“For our EnCourage members, [St. Joseph] is a model of genuine fatherhood, and a reminder that to follow God’s plan for ourselves and our families, the most necessary thing is to stay close to, and focused on, Jesus and Mary,” Father Bochanski said in a press release. 

Delivering the keynote address at the conference will be Dr. Greg Bottaro, director of the CatholicPsych Institute and author of “Consecration to Jesus through St. Joseph: An Integrated Look At the Holy Family.”

Other speakers include Father Ricardo Pineda of the Fathers of Mercy; Mary Rice Hasson, director of the Catholic Women’s Forum; and Deacon Patrick Lappert, MD, a Courage chaplain. 

“Last year's virtual conference allowed us to connect with members and friends from around the world, and we don't want to lose those connections,” Bochanski told CNA. “Our conference this year will be a hybrid model -- conference talks and liturgies will be live-streamed for those who cannot attend in person for various reasons.”

Bochanski said that while Courage can't recreate all the benefits of the in-person conference in a virtual format, they are encouraging their members who will participate online to find ways to join with their local chapters, and watch the talks and discuss them together.

Courage will be holding a “Clergy Day” on July 14 for priests, deacons, and seminarians, which will include presentations on how to understand and present the Church’s teaching on same-sex attraction “with clarity and charity, and to provide authentic pastoral care,” the press release said.

Bochanski said he was looking forward to the participation of all including Courage chaplains, as  well as other clergy, religious, and laity who are engaged in pastoral ministry. He especially is excited to welcome a number of bishops, who will celebrate Mass and preach during the conference.  

“I am particularly grateful to Archbishop Naumann of Kansas City for welcoming us to his archdiocese, and agreeing to celebrate the opening Mass of the conference,” he said.

Bochanski noted that Courage is especially looking forward to the participation of their Spanish-speaking members from Europe and the Americas. “I am grateful that we have the ability to include them through simultaneous interpretation of keynote talks, as well as presentations, meetings and liturgies in Spanish,” he said.

Priest gave general absolution to Mexico City metro victims

Construction crews attend to the collapsed cars of the elevated metro line in Mexico City, May 4, 2021. Credit: Nick_John_07/Shutterstock.

Mexico City, Mexico, May 5, 2021 / 17:01 pm (CNA).

Fr. Juan Ortiz has said he managed to reach the scene of the accident on a metro overpass in Mexico shortly after it occurred Monday evening, giving general absolution to the victims.

“I got as close as I could, at a safe distance, I prayed for the dead, for the injured, and gave general absolution,” he told Desde la Fe, the weekly magazine of the Archdiocese of Mexico.

The elevated metro line, with two passenger cars, fell onto a road May 3. At least 24 people were killed, and more than 70 were injured.

Fr. Ortiz is pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Zapotitlán, located near Tláhuac where the metro wreck occurred.

The Catholic Church allows priests to grant general absolution to the faithful who are “in imminent danger of death and even though a priest or priests are present, they have no time to hear the confession of each penitent.”

Fr. Ortiz said he was paying for his purchase at a nearby supermarket “when the power went out twice. I finished paying and when I left, the street was already closed and patrol cars were there.”

"In fewer than five minutes I came upon the scene," and "could see the dead were being taken out on stretchers.”

Fr. Ortiz said that everyone on the scene "felt hopeless and helpless knowing there were people trapped there; it was quite a spectacle, very shocking."

The priest lamented that the accident was foreseeable, since local residents had reported that the metro structures had been damaged by the earthquakes that struck Mexico in 2017.

Government officials, including president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, promised an in-depth investigation into the causes of the accident.

Bishop Andrés Vargas Peña of Xochimilco prayed for the deceased, injured, and their families and expressed his solidarity with them, offering Mass for the victims the following morning.

‘We are alarmed’: Catholic aid groups respond to India’s COVID crisis

June 25, 2020: Health workers arrive at a check-up camp in Malad / Manoej Paateel/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., May 5, 2021 / 16:00 pm (CNA).

Catholic aid groups are mobilizing relief efforts in India, as the country is gripped by a worsening outbreak of the coronavirus.

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and Caritas India are on the ground in the subcontinent, and are administering aid. 

“In India and elsewhere, CRS and our Church partners are providing life-saving support to communities impacted by COVID-19,” Nikki Gamer, media relations manager for CRS, told CNA on Wednesday. 

Gamer said that CRS has reached more than 10 million people through on-the-ground efforts to prevent spread of the virus, support health responders, and “assist extremely vulnerable families to manage the compounded impacts of the pandemic on their lives.”

The Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), a papal agency that provides humanitarian and pastoral support for the Middle East, northeast Africa, India, and Eastern Europe, announced a new emergency campaign for India on Tuesday. The campaign will “help the local churches respond to the escalating COVID-19 crisis,” the agency said. 

“We cannot watch this catastrophe unfold and not share the heartbreak and feel the need to help,” the agency’s president Msgr. Peter Vaccari stated in a press release on Tuesday. 

The death toll from the pandemic in India is estimated to have exceeded 225,000. The country is averaging about 3,500 deaths per day from COVID-19, and hospitals are running low on bed and vital supplies. Experts believe the number of deaths to be undercounted, the AP has reported.

“We are alarmed by the spike in COVID-19 cases in India, Nepal and other hotspots. As our Asia regional director said last week, ‘Even as an increasingly vaccinated America looks forward to a light at the end of the COVID tunnel, a number of countries in Asia are hitting their darkest periods,’” Gamer said. 

Gamer told CNA that “it’s clear that the global response to the pandemic is not moving fast enough,” and that CRS is calling on the United States and other countries “to commit to bold and immediate action to prevent the threats posed by COVID-19 worldwide.” 

Msgr. Vaccari promised that his agency will be responding to where they are needed in India.

“When the world has needed us, CNEWA was there,” he said. “And we are there now, in India, where our regional office is at work, bringing assistance however we can to those in need.”

One of CRS’ top priorities is expanding vaccine education in hard-hit areas, said Gamer. 

“CRS and our Catholic partners play a unique role as a trusted source of information—which, at a time of fear and misinformation, is truly lifesaving,” she said. 

“We are extremely grateful for the continued generosity from American Catholics and others of goodwill,” she said. “We remain committed to the notion that to end this pandemic anywhere, we must end it everywhere.”

According to CRS’ website, the organization has focused on supporting migrant workers, who are at an increased risk of getting the virus. CRS also provides psychological care and hunger assistance.

'Mosques are springing up everywhere', Congolese bishop says amid fear of Islamization

Stuart Boulton/Shutterstock.

Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, May 5, 2021 / 15:01 pm (CNA).

The Democratic Republic of the Congo has seen an increase in attacks that target Christians in what a Catholic bishop in the central African country has described as a path towards Islamization.

Bishop Melchisedec Sikuli Paluku of Butembo-Beni spoke May 3 to the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need International, discussing the abduction of Christians and the widespread construction of mosques in the country.

Bishop Paluku, who has been Bishop of Butembo-Beni since 1998, said that those behind the persecution of Christians have “a grand scheme to Islamize or expel the local populations.”

When asked why he spoke of Islamization when the main organization involved in the abductions and the attacks in the region is the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist rebel group, the bishop said: “All those who have been kidnapped by these terrorist groups and who have escaped alive from them report the same thing.”

“They (victims) were given the choice between death and conversion to Islam,” Bishop Paluku said, adding that “they are given Muslim names to cement their identity. Besides, even those who live in the diocese and haven’t gone through this traumatic experience can tell you that mosques are springing up everywhere.”

He says that for many years Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi had a lot of interest in DR Congo and gave generously toward the building of mosques in the country.

The Bishop of Butembo-Beni added that today “other sources” have taken over the funding of the construction of the buildings.

He said the militant groups are involved in mining to expand their sources of funding.

“It is plain to see that Islamization is not their sole motivation,” he said, adding: “This region abounds with natural resources and they are being exploited completely illegally.”

“How else can you explain those coltan refineries that are operating in Rwanda, when the country has none of this resource?” the bishop posed. “Instead this rare mineral is extracted here in our region and exported quite illegally across the other side of the frontier. And I see no sign of the Congolese government being concerned.”

The Islamist groups have faced opposition within the Muslim community. Ali Amini, a Muslim religious leader, was shot dead while praying in Beni's main mosque May 1. He was known as an outspoken critic of Islamic militancy.

ACN reported that since the beginning of April, a wave of demonstrations calling for an end to insecurity have taken place in DR Congo

Justifying the protests, Bishop Paluku said, “You cannot ask people who are being slaughtered like animals to simply shut up and do nothing. They have every right to demand security, every right to demand freedom. We simply urge that this should be done with respect for the law, peacefully and without violence.”

The people, the bishop said, are protesting what he describes as “the completely ineffectual nature of the UN peacekeeping mission” amid heightened conflict.

“When I became bishop, 20 years ago, people were already talking about the balkanization of the region. I can only say that the expression still applies today!”

He says that the National Episcopal Conference of Congo calculates that there have been over 6,000 people killed in Beni since 2013, and over 2,000 in Bunia in 2020 alone.

There are also at least 3 million internally displaced persons and around 7,500 people who have been kidnapped, the bishop said.

He denounced what he refers to as weakness and complicity on the part of the government of president Felix Tshisekedi and said that he is not afraid to call out the country’s leadership for allowing violence in the country.

When ACN asked whether he thinks he is taking a risk in denouncing the government, Bishop Paluku said, “The Congolese Catholic Church is not concerned in this respect. She has done so much for the construction of the country and she manages so many schools and hospitals!”

“Congo would not be the Congo without the Church. So, we are fortunate in being able to speak out quite freely,” the bishop said.

'Demographic earthquake'? U.S. fertility rates fall again to record-low levels

TOMO/Shutterstock

Washington D.C., May 5, 2021 / 14:00 pm (CNA).

The U.S. total fertility rate fell to its lowest-recorded level last year and the number of births was the lowest in 42 years, new federal data published on Wednesday revealed.

According to provisional data of the National Vital Statistics System published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the total fertility rate in the United States dropped 4% from 2019 to 2020, reaching a record-low. The general fertility rate and overall number of births also declined by 4% last year, with the number of births at its lowest since 1979.

The total fertility rate – an estimate of the number of births that 1,000 women would have in their lifetimes – was only 1,637.5 births per 1,000 women in 2020, well below the “replacement level” rate of 2,100 births per 1,000 women.

W. Brad Wilcox, senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, called the report “pretty sobering demographic news.”

He added that “we could be on the cusp of a major demographic shift, or almost like a demographic earthquake here in the United States.”

According to the report, the total fertility rate has been below replacement level “generally” since 1971, and “consistently” since 2007 – just before the global economic crisis of the following year.

The U.S. fertility rate is actually lower than Japan’s in 1988, Wilcox noted. Japan’s fertility rate went on to drop precipitously after that year, he said, effecting a demographic decline with around a million more deaths than births in recent years.

“The question is, are we heading down the Japanese road?” Wilcox asked, pointing to Southern Europe and East Asia as other examples of regions with low birth rates.

For 2020, the general fertility rate stood at 55.8 births per 1,000 women ages 15-44, a record-low.

The overall number of births in the United States fell 4% last year to just more than 3.6 million births in 2020 – the sixth consecutive year that figure has decreased and the lowest number of births since 1979.

There might be a number of causes behind the low birth rates, Wilcox said. While demographers have warned of a possible “baby bust” due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it caused, those numbers would only be revealed in the December statistics at the very end of 2020, he said.

“We would predict that 2021, this year, is going to be even more dramatic” in the declining birth rate, he said, noting that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could markedly influence the 2021 birth statistics.

Furthermore, birth rates have fallen since the 2008 economic crisis but have not rebounded as the U.S. economy bounced back from the “Great Recession,” he said, implying that causes other than the economy are also responsible for the decline in fertility rates.

“Delays in marriage” are a large driver of the decline, Wilcox said. The rise of technology impacting social life is another, he said, with fewer people socializing and dating in-person. Adults are also more invested in education and work, he said, and are less likely to view marriage and parenthood as “anchors” of adult life.

While federal policies such as paid parental leave and a generous child allowance could play a role in increasing the birth rate, Wilcox noted that Northern European countries with generous family policies are still seeing birth rates fall.

“That’s not a cure-all,” he said of federal pro-family policies, while noting that they would be "helpful."

Among demographic subgroups, the general fertility rate in 2020 dropped 9% for non-Hispanic Asian women, and 4% for non-Hispanic white and non-Hispanic Black women, according to the numbers published by the CDC on Wednesday.

Birth rates among teenagers and young adults continued their steep declines in recent decades.

The provisional birth rate for teenagers ages 15-19 dropped by 8% in 2020, while the provisional birth rate among women ages 20-24 declined by 6% to a record-low 62.8 births per 1,000 women. The birth rate among this subgroup has dropped by 40% since 2007.

While the birth rate among women aged 40-44 had generally risen since 1985, it fell by 2% from 2019 to 2020, to 11.8 births per 1,000 women.