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New Orleans 'Hope Monstrance' to visit U.S. communities hit by disasters

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy LÕOsservatore Roman

By Peter Finney Jr.

NEW ORLEANS (CNS) -- When the levees broke in 2005 and Lakeview became Lake Pontchartrain, Katrina launched its mad-scientist experiment.

What would three weeks of brackish and corrosive water, chemicals and mud do not only to St. Dominic Parish's Aquinas Hall in Lakeview, which housed a small chapel across the street from the church, but also to the gold-plated, eucharistic monstrance now laid on its side and entombed in the muck at the foot of the altar?

As a precaution before the storm, parishioner Susie Veters had removed the Blessed Sacrament from the monstrance and placed it in the tabernacle. She kept the empty monstrance on the chapel altar and locked the doors.

The monstrance was no match for the 8 feet of lake water, which lifted it off the altar and dropped it to the floor, burying it in mud.

When Veters pulled the sacred vessel from the mud three weeks later, she didn't think it had a chance to be restored, but Michael McGee, a member of the parish's contemporary choir, had an avocation for restoring church artifacts in his spare time and worked as quickly as he could to clean the metal, restore the gold plating and stabilize the long metal rod that held everything together.

On March 15, 2006 -- six months after the buried monstrance was recovered -- Veters and her husband, Pat, and Msgr. Christopher Nalty, a New Orleans pastor, were in St. Peter's Square where Pope Benedict XVI personally blessed the vessel after his general audience. He also granted a plenary indulgence to those who prayed before it and fulfilled other necessary conditions.

The artifact, ultimately named the "Hope Monstrance," traveled in 2006 and 2007 to 140 churches across Louisiana and Mississippi to promote the city's Katrina recovery and the power of perpetual adoration. The monstrance even made a stop at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Now the monstrance has gone on the road again, offering the gift of hope to communities that, like New Orleans in 2005, need a large dose of healing.

Over the next month, the monstrance will travel to three U.S. communities still reeling from disasters in 2017: Houston (Hurricane Harvey); Las Vegas (the worst mass shooting in U.S. history); and Santa Rosa, California (wildfires that destroyed 5,000 homes in Sonoma County). The monstrance also will make an appearance at the V Encuentro national Hispanic conference outside Dallas.

John Smestad Jr., a St. Dominic parishioner and director of pastoral planning and ministries for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, coordinated the stops largely with the help of Stephen Morris, a longtime friend who is in charge of youth ministry for the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

"Stephen called me at the chancery because he had stumbled across the old article about the monstrance, and he was seeing if they might be able to borrow it because their bishop wanted to do something to mark the anniversary of the fires in Sonoma County," Smestad told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the new Orleans Archdiocese.

"Those fires burned down vast areas. The Catholic high school burned down. Entire neighborhoods burned down. It was unreal," he said. "It would be like driving down (a street) and the left side is gone and the right side is normal and totally undamaged."

Morris called Smestad to ask where he might be able to track down the monstrance.

"Stephen," Smestad replied, laughing, "that's my parish, and I'm sure I can facilitate this."

After getting the approval from Dominican Father John Restrepo, the St. Dominic pastor, Smestad worked with Morris to start connecting more dots beyond Santa Rosa. Houston had sustained record flooding from Harvey, and officials there jumped at the chance to have five parishes and one chapel host the monstrance for prayer services last week.

"It's just a great sign of hope and trust," said Lazaro Contreras, director of Hispanic ministry in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. "We still hope and trust in the Lord after all these catastrophic events that we have experienced."

In the Diocese of Las Vegas, director of faith formation Connie Clough said she knew 25 people who attended the concert last Oct. 1 in which 58 people were killed and 851 injured by a lone gunman who sprayed bullets from the top of a hotel on the Vegas Strip.

St. Viator Parish, about 10 miles from the shooting location, will host an outdoor eucharistic procession, beginning at 8 p.m. on Oct. 1 and ending at 10:05 p.m. -- the time the first shots were fired a year ago.

"We will process into the church with the Blessed Sacrament and have a liturgy of the word, a short homily and silence," Clough said.

At a recent diocesan conference, Clough said, 1,100 people attended and focused on the idea of "hope."

"It centered on remembering not only the victims but also the heroes -- the first responders," she said. "People understand that hope doesn't necessarily mean everything will be OK. Something has changed. But, it's about knowing that there is something better. I will always remember the long lines of people who were donating blood."

When the Hope Monstrance completes its tour in Santa Rosa Oct. 7, Morris said, there will be an anniversary prayer service bringing together the largest number of Catholic and Protestant faith leaders in memory. Twenty Protestant pastors lost their homes in the fires. Eighty percent of Cardinal Newman High School was destroyed.

Morris said 60 percent of the residents who lost their homes "haven't taken the first step in rebuilding," largely because their insurance coverage had not keep pace with their homes' escalating values.

Morris was studying for his master's degree in organizational leadership at the University of San Francisco in 2005 when his professor, who had taught in New Orleans years earlier, predicted to his students that if Katrina breeched the levees, New Orleans' very existence would be imperiled.

Morris saw a city on its knees that somehow, after a decade of recovery, rose again.

"We're trying to share the story of hope with the faithful in the Santa Rosa area," Morris said. "It's not just the physical monstrance. It's the idea of sharing our suffering, our death and our resurrection."

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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

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Virgin Islands diocese still recovering from 2017 double hurricanes

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Diocese of St

By Laura Ann Phillips

PORT-OF-SPAIN, Trinidad (CNS) -- One year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria smashed through the Virgin Islands, people remain jittery about the rest of the 2018 hurricane season.

"Everyone is extremely nervous and anxious about going through another hurricane without recovering from the previous two," said Warren Bush, chief financial officer for the Diocese of St Thomas.

A combination of heavy bureaucracy, sometimes sluggish supply chains and a shortage of contractors have slowed recovery efforts, leaving repairs to many damaged homes and public buildings still incomplete.

Now, at the height of the current hurricane season, "We have to stabilize buildings to prevent additional water damage," Bush said. "We're very concerned about what could be."

On Sept. 6, 2017, Hurricane Irma mowed through the islands and, two weeks later, Hurricane Maria devastated whatever was left. Both hit as Category 5 storms.

"We've never experienced this level of destruction," said Bush. "And on the three islands, all at once. There's been a shortage of contractors, materials, so that the damage hasn't been addressed as quickly. You could have all the resources in the world, but if you don't have contractors ..."

"Every contractor has between six to 10 jobs working on," said Andrea Shillingford, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Virgin Islands. "We are not in normal times."

Both Bush and Bishop Herbert Bevard of St. Thomas credited the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Catholic Charities and insurance companies with getting restoration of diocesan and other properties underway.

"Schools are still severely damaged in St. Thomas and St. Croix," said Bush, adding that students and teachers are using the safer structures.

Recovery in the islands tends to be slow, he admitted, citing mitigating factors that do not exist on the U.S. mainland when communities there are affected by storms.

"It is difficult for someone from the States (to understand)," he said. On the mainland: "We have more resources, more ability to obtain help from a greater region. It's easier for FEMA to get in, easier for us to get aid, to get through any situations."

Bush, who has lived in the islands for almost 20 years, added: "It's not necessarily a lack of concern, rather, it's one of access. It's 1,500 miles away from the nearest point of contact" from the U.S. mainland. "And, there are often storage and distribution issues that may go unnoticed, that don't exist in the States."

This also makes evacuation an impractical option. People literally have "less ability to reach a safe haven," said Bush.

"It would be physically impossible to evacuate people from these islands in one day," said Shillingford, originally from the island nation of Dominica. Flights are limited, she added.

To access the Virgin Islands in a time of disaster, mainland-based FEMA would "have to wait until the airports and ports are repaired," said Shillingford, "and a place (cleared) for the helicopters to land."

Bush said the government of the Virgin Islands has expended "a lot of effort in the recovery process," noting that "about 90 percent of the utilities have been reconnected."

Bishop Bevard said repairs to several government buildings, such as the post offices and hospitals, appear to be "a problem," and "many houses still have blue tarpaulins on their roofs, but there used to be many more."

He said the all-important tourism industry has been heavily affected.

"Tourism is the first and only industry here," he explained. "Where there were six cruise ships a day, now we're lucky to have six in a week. That impacts the stores, the taxi drivers."

Shillingford recalls one taxi driver who "was taking care of her grandchildren. Her only form of income has been driving that taxi. We had to help her restore her business" and give additional help while things were slow.

"There are lots of stories like hers," said Shillingford, who has lived in the Virgin Islands for 11 years. "Parents can't afford to buy school uniforms for their children."

Homelessness is also an issue, especially among "people whose houses were destroyed."

"People are unemployed," she said. "It's left to agencies like us to find funding."

Catholic Charities operates five soup kitchens on all three islands; two each on St. Croix and St. Thomas, one on St. John. The agency serves 300-400 meals every day, up from 6,000 meals a year, the average before Irma and Maria. A mobile service delivers meals to people who cannot travel, like the many elderly people were abandoned after last year's hurricanes.

"After the storms, they had mercy ships," said Shillingford. "A lot of young people moved to the mainland and left their elderly people here, and they have additional needs. (Our) case managers go out to them."

Bishop Bevard said the diocese plans to build more soup kitchens and improve outreach centers and homeless shelters on all three islands.

Shillingford said people remain shaky when it comes to the weather.

"Any time there's a little rain," said Shillingford, "people get agitated -- adults, really. Children recover quickly; they look to the adults. If the adults pretend, the children feel it's OK. Especially now, this week, people are kind of nervous," she said as the winds of Tropical Storm Isaac fanned the islands.

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Bishop takes a (sky) dive to get pilgrims to Lourdes

IMAGE: CNS photo courtesy of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton


HOVE, England (CNS) -- "The Moth has landed," tweeted the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton.

The tweet Sept. 14 and a similar post on the diocesan Facebook page was meant to assure people that 60-year-old Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton had fulfilled his pledge to go skydiving and had completed the task successfully and unharmed.

Joined by Lucy Barnes, a local Catholic school teacher, Bishop Moth jumped from a plane at 15,000 feet to raise money to take ailing pilgrims to Lourdes.

"He flies through the air with the greatest of ease," said another tweet, referring to Bishop Moth.

The Bishops' Conference of England and Wales tweeted: "Is it a bird? Is it a plane? ... Wait, it's a bishop!" They made no reference to the insect that flies and shares the bishop's name.

With a goal of 3,000 pounds (just under $4,000), the bishop raised more than 5,160 pounds on an online crowdfunding website.

In a press release from the diocese, Bishop Moth said: "It requires you to trust in the person you are in tandem with and in the equipment. The staff, however, are very professional and looked after us really well." Both the bishop and Barnes jumped in tandem with -- and harnessed to -- an instructor.

Barnes said, "It was very cold at 15,000 feet and the one minute of freefall made my head spin, but then the gently drifting down with the parachute open was fantastic as you could see everything around you."

When asked if they would do it again, Bishop Moth gave a hesitant "I might," according to the diocese, but Barnes said, "I would not go up again and am glad to be back on earth, and feeling so much better after fish and chips, and gin and tonic!"

While Bishop Moth spent six years as the "bishops of the forces," or military ordinary of Great Britain, it was not until he was far away from the professional paratroopers that he decided to wing it in an attempt to raise enough money to send two assisted pilgrims to Lourdes.

"Each year, the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton organizes a pilgrimage to Lourdes for one week in late July," the diocese said. "Over 700 pilgrims travel with us, and 120 of those are sick, frail, elderly or disabled. Some pilgrims and their carers find it hard to fund their trip, and so from time to time we fund raise to subsidize their fare and accommodation in Lourdes."

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Pope prays for young people, their diligence and courage

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- As he often does with a group made up of people of different faiths or no faith, Pope Francis gave young people in Palermo a special blessing, but not a ritual one.

After the pope's meeting with teenagers and young adults Sept. 15, some Catholics on Twitter expressed outrage that there was no formal apostolic blessing in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Instead, the pope asked God to look upon the thousands of young people gathered with him in Palermo's Piazza Politeama.

After giving his formal speech, Pope Francis apologized to the young people for delivering it while seated when they were all standing. But, he said, "my ankles are really sore."

"Now I would like to give you a blessing, but I know that among you there are young Catholics, Christians, members of other religions and a few agnostics," he said. "For this reason, I will give everyone a blessing, and I will ask God to bless the seed of restlessness that is in your heart."

The pope clasped his hands, bowed his head and prayed: "Lord, Lord God, look upon these young people. You know each one of them. You know what they think. You know that they want to go forward, to make a better world.

"Lord, make them seekers of goodness and happiness. Make them diligent in their journey and in their encounters with others. Make them bold in serving; make them humble in seeking their roots and nurturing them to bear fruit, to have an identity, to belong. May the Lord, the Lord God, accompany all these young people on their journey and bless each one. Amen."

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Pope, in Sicily, honors priest martyred by Mafia

IMAGE: CNS photo/Paul Haring


PALERMO, Sicily (CNS) -- Honoring a priest shot at point-blank range by the Mafia, Pope Francis insisted that true happiness and a real change in Sicilian society will come only when people love and care for one another rather than trying to grab as much money and power as they can.

"Having always leads to wanting. I have something and immediately want another and another without end. The more you have the more you want. It's a horrible addiction," Pope Francis said, celebrating Mass Sept. 15 in Palermo.

"On the other hand, one who loves finds himself and discovers how beautiful it is to help others has joy on the inside and a smile on the outside, just like Father Pino" Puglisi, the anti-Mafia priest gunned down Sept. 15, 1993, his 56th birthday.

Pope Francis made a day trip to Sicily to mark the 25th anniversary of the now-beatified priest's martyrdom. His homily and speeches included denunciations of the Mafia and a call for the mafiosi to convert, but he focused especially on encouraging local Catholics to live their faith and to courageously stand up to all forms of injustice, which flow from and feed into the Mafia's power.

And meeting Sicily's bishops, priests, religious and seminarians in the afternoon, Pope Francis asked for special care in ensuring that the traditional religious festivals of the region's cities and towns not be used, as they have been in the past, to give a pious varnish to members of the Mafia.

"I ask you to be attentive guardians so that popular religiosity is not instrumentalized by a Mafia presence," he said. Stopping processions with a statue of Mary "and having her bow before the home of the Mafia chief," as has been known to occur, "this will not do, absolutely not!"

Pope Francis began the day in Piazza Armerina in central Sicily, urging Catholics not to resign themselves to the problems in their lives, their families and their community, but not to ignore them either.

"Looking at the wounds of society and of the church is not defamatory or pessimistic," he said. "If we want our faith to be concrete, we must learn to recognize in this human suffering the very wounds of the Lord. Look at them. Touch them. Touch the wounds of the Lord in our wounds, in our society, in our families."

Strength for building a community that is solid and in solidarity with the poor will come from regularly celebrating Sunday Mass together, Pope Francis told the people.

"How many times have I heard, 'Oh, father, I pray, but I don't go to Mass,'" he said. "'Why not?' 'Because the homily is boring; it lasts 40 minutes.'"

"No, the whole Mass should last 40 minutes," the pope said, exaggerating. "But the homily must not go more than eight minutes."

The pope's homily later at his outdoor Mass in Palermo lasted 17 minutes, but that included several long interruptions for applause.

Money and power do not liberate people, they make them slaves, the pope said in the homily. Those who are most free and most happy are those who give their lives in service to others, like Blessed Puglisi did.

"Twenty-five years ago today when he died on his birthday, he crowned his victory with a smile, that smile that kept his killer from sleeping," the pope said, noting how the man arrested for the priest's death said, "There was a kind of light in that smile."

"We so need priests who smile," the pope said. "We need Christians who smile, not because they take things lightly, but because they are rich only in God's love, because they believe in love and live to serve others."

Pope Francis prayed that God would "free us from thinking that everything is well as long as it's well with me, and the others can just get by somehow. May he free us from thinking we are just even if we do nothing to fight injustice. One who does nothing to fight injustice is not a just man or woman."

"You cannot believe in God and exploit your brother or sister," he said. "You cannot believe in God and be a mafioso. The mafiosi do not live as Christians because with their lives they blaspheme the name of God, who is love."

The pope's visit to Sicily ended with an outdoor meeting with tens of thousands of teenagers and young adults in a Palermo square.

He urged them to dream and to love one another and to fight every form of corruption that flows from or builds up the Mafia.

"No to the Mafia mentality, to illegality, to the logic of crime, which are corrosive poisons for human dignity," the pope said. "No to every form of violence. Those who use violence are not human. And the youngest of you, remember and promise me none of you will be bullies."

"Promise me: No violence. No bullying," he said. "No to resignation. Everything can change" if people open their hearts and stand firm in hope.

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Packers fan with months to live sees game with aid from hospice, diocese

IMAGE: CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass

By Sam Lucero

ALLOUEZ, Wis. (CNS) -- When David Marosek, who had been battling stage 4 rectal cancer since July 2016, got the news in April his cancer had returned and spread into his lungs and spine, it was a depressing time.

"I was told that it was terminal and they gave me like six months to a year" to live, he told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, in a telephone interview from his Oshkosh apartment. Rather than begin new treatments, Marosek chose to enter hospice.

"I've been in hospice now for a few months," he said. With the assistance of Aurora at Home Hospice, Marosek receives medical care and home visits from hospice staff, including Jayne Syrjamaki, Aurora at Home volunteer coordinator.

When hospice staff met Marosek in July, they asked him, "If you had one wish, what would it be?" It's part of the hospice program's "Drop in the Bucket" initiative to grant small wishes to patients. The wish was then turned over to Syrjamaki. "He said he had always wanted to go to a Packer game," she said.

"I've been a Packer fan all my life," Marosek, 52, told The Compass. "I can remember, back when I was 5 or 6, watching Packer games on TV with my father -- or listening to the game on the car radio after church on Sunday, waiting for Mom to get groceries."

The chance to watch a Green Bay Packers game live at Lambeau Field would be a dream come true, Marosek told Syrjamaki. She set out to make it happen, but got no replies after sending messages to Oshkosh-area businesses.

"I wasn't about to give up because I had the exact same diagnosis," Syrjamaki said. "I went through colon cancer treatment four years ago. I'm a survivor, but I knew David wasn't going to have the tomorrows that I have. That's why it was a little more important to me."

Syrjamaki decided to contact the Diocese of Green Bay.

"I grew up at St. Joseph Parish in Kellnersville and I remember reading things in the bulletin about how the diocese helped people," she said. Her email request was given to Ted Phernetton, executive director of Catholic Charities in Green Bay. "Within a day, I heard back from Ted and that he was going to put out a request. About two days later he had tickets."

In her email to the diocese, Syrjamaki explained that she wanted to grant the final wish of a hospice patient. "I am hoping you can help this gentleman or lead me in the right direction," she wrote.

For Phernetton, the request -- like it had for Syrjamaki -- struck a personal chord.

"For some reason this touched my heart immediately," he told The Compass. "Maybe, in part, because I was lucky. I am a cancer survivor and he will not be."

Phernetton explained that Catholic Charities receives many requests each day. "We work hard to bring the Gospel to life and to help where we can," he said. "Life can get so very messy and folks typically turn to us when things are very dark in their lives."

With terminal cancer, Marosek "has no real control over what comes next," said Phernetton. "His wish is a way for him to pursue just a little bit of power and influence over what remains of his life."

Phernetton's first step was to email members of the diocesan staff, explaining the request and seeking help with tickets. "Within minutes, I began receiving responses from folks wanting to help or pointing me in specific directions," he said.

Employees of the diocese contributed donations and procured two tickets for the Sept. 9 season opener between the Packers and the Chicago Bears. Their financial donations -- along with a few cash donations from Syrjamaki's friends -- also provided funds for a Packers Pro Shop gift card and concessions.

In a surprise visit Aug. 30, Syrjamaki informed Marosek that he would be attending the game.

"I said I was there to do a volunteer supervisory visit," she said. "We started talking about all the Packers posters on his walls and then he said, 'l love the Packers.' So I pulled out a fleece Packer blanket and said to David, 'I would like you take this blanket and use it to cover up your legs when go to the Packers-Bears game.' He cried, I cried. All tears of joy."

"Health-wise, I know I'm dying. I understand that," said Marosek. "I have some problems getting around. That's why I got a wheelchair to go to the game. Otherwise, I'm in pretty good spirits, I guess, considering all of this," noting he had been given the sacrament of anointing from a visiting priest in early September.

His spirits were raised as he entered Lambeau Field to witness the Packers roar back from a 20-0, third-quarter deficit to defeat the Bears, 24-23. After posing for a photo before the game, Marosek said another set of tickets was donated to him by the diocese for the Oct. 15 Packers-San Francisco 49ers game, but he declined.

"I told them my dream was just to go to one Packer game," he said. "I wasn't going to be greedy. I am hoping somebody else (in hospice) will enjoy them and get to have the same experience I am having tonight."

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Lucero is news and information manager for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.

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Update: To Europe's periphery: Pope to visit Baltic nations in late September

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis will travel to the eastern periphery of Europe to honor a faith that withstood a Nazi invasion and five decades of communist dictatorship and now is striving to help people live in freedom as authentic disciples of Christ.

The pope's visit Sept. 22-25 to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia comes in the year the three Baltic nations are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their declarations of independence after World War I. While declared Soviet republics in 1940, the countries were occupied by the Nazis during World War II and then lived under Soviet rule from 1944 to 1990.

St. John Paul II visited the countries in 1993 as they were at the beginning stages of solidifying democracy and living with full religious liberty.

Bishop Philippe Jourdan, the apostolic administrator of Estonia's tiny Catholic community, told Catholic News Service that the motto of the pope's visit to Estonia "is a well-known Estonian song, 'Mu suda arka ules,' which means 'Wake up my heart.' It is more or less what we all -- Catholics, non-Catholics or nonreligious people -- are waiting for: that the pope helps us to find a new hope in our heart and in our society, as was the case in the years immediately after the end of the Soviet time."

"Materialism and secularization are now very strong in Estonian society," he said, "and we need a new start."

On a special website for the visit, Bishop Jourdan wrote that when St. John Paul visited 25 years ago, his message was, "'Do not be afraid!' In those years, the Estonian state was like a sick person who had just woken up from a coma, treading with insecure steps, but with great expectations of peace, of unity with the rest of Europe, of great ideals, perhaps also of material things but with great hope."

A quarter-century later, the independent governments are stable, and the three countries are full members of the European Union, he said. But "while Estonian society has reached a good level of material security, spiritual security is lacking today."

Archbishop Gintaras Grusas of Vilnius, Lithuania, said the 100th anniversary of independence commemorations are "a time of reflection on the gift of freedom, as well as the cost of freedom."

"This gift requires us to work for the common good and for peace," he wrote in the September issue of Europeinfos, the newsletter of the commission of bishops' conferences in E.U. countries and the Jesuit European office. "The 50 years of Soviet occupation require a reflection on the cost of that freedom -- the suffering, deportations, persecutions and sacrificed lives that must never be forgotten."

Pope Francis is expected to repeat advice he often gives: Remember the past and honor it, but also face the present with courage and the future with hope.

In each of the nations, the pope will pay homage to those who died in the struggle for freedom and human dignity. And, in Vilnius Sept. 23, he will pause to pray at a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazis. The pope's visit will take place on the 75th anniversary of the Nazi's liquidating the ghetto where they had forced up to 40,000 Jews to live. Almost none of them survived.

The pope is scheduled to place flowers at the foot of the Freedom Monument in Riga, Latvia, Sept. 24. The monument honors those who fought for Latvia's independence from 1918 to 1920. Erected in 1935, Soviet authorities repeatedly announced plans to take it down but relented in the face of public pressure.

The monument "is a symbol of Latvian independence, which has been preserved through all the years of Soviet ideology. It reminds us that true freedom can be preserved even amid external persecution and oppression," Archbishop Zbignevs Stankevics of Riga told CNS.

Relations with other Christians and with nonbelievers also are expected to play a big role in the pope's trip. He has an ecumenical prayer service planned Sept. 24 in the Lutheran cathedral in Riga, Latvia, and an ecumenical meeting with young people the next day at a Lutheran church in Tallinn, Estonia.

Estonia is the Baltic nation with the smallest Catholic population and with the largest percentage of people claiming no faith at all, Bishop Jourdan said.

According to Vatican statistics, less than half of 1 percent of Estonia's population is Catholic. Almost 21 percent of Latvians are Catholic and close to 80 percent of Lithuanians belong to the Catholic Church. In all three nations, the Catholic Church's closest ecumenical partners are Lutherans and Orthodox.

With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the three nations also have faced the challenge of emigration, especially in the years following the global economic crisis that began in 2008.

Estonia's population declined, Bishop Jourdan said, "but far less than Latvia's and Lithuania's, and for the past three years there has been a slight increase in the population, in part because of an incipient immigration. Perhaps it is due to the fact that the economic situation in Estonia is better than in Latvia or Lithuania."

Archbishop Stankevics said Latvia has experienced "a significant population drop in recent years, and the impact of emigration is felt in our parishes."

The only way to reverse the process is to create more jobs in an ethical and sustainable way, the archbishop said. In addition, "we need to develop work qualification courses to help people to be skilled in jobs really needed in the local economy."

Archbishop Grusas told CNS Sept. 13 that many Lithuanian emigrants were "looking for change or trying to get away from past hurts," but there is some evidence that people are starting to come back to the country.

Emigration is part of the "whole gamut of social problems" Pope Francis is expected to address, but always in the context of helping people find a hope-filled response, the archbishop said.

Lithuania's Catholics were known for the heroic way they preserved the faith under communism despite harsh repression. The challenges to faith are different today, the archbishop said, not only because of the influence of secularization and materialism, but also because the communists made it so difficult to educate people in the faith.

"Independence changed that -- there is a lot of information available now," the archbishop said, "but the challenge is how to live in freedom and learning what true freedom is, not just doing what we want, but knowing we have obligations and responsibilities, too."

In Latvia, Archbishop Stankevics said, "since the collapse of communism, faith has perhaps lost its traditional devotional forms and has developed more into commitment of personal relationships with God and service in the church."

At the same time, he said, "threats to the faith arise from the present social, economic and cultural challenges."

In a July interview with Vatican News, Archbishop Grusas said he saw "the finger of God" and Pope Francis' own priorities reflected in his choice to visit the Baltics, "the periphery of the European Union."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden

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Algerian martyrs to be beatified in Algeria Dec. 8


By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The beatification of 19 martyrs of Algeria, including the seven Trappist monks of Tibhirine, will be celebrated Dec. 8 in Oran, Algeria, the country's bishops announced.

Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, will preside over the Mass and beatification rite for the six women and 13 men who gave their lives "for the least, the sick and the men, women and young people of Algeria," said a statement published by the bishops Sept. 13.

The martyrs "are given to us as intercessors and models of Christian life, friendship and fraternity, encounter and dialogue," the bishops said. "May their example help us in our life today."

"From Algeria, their beatification will be an impetus and a call for the church and for the world to build together a world of peace and fraternity," the bishops said.

The 19 martyrs were killed between 1993 and 1996 while Algeria was locked in a 10-year-long armed conflict between government forces and extremist Islamic rebel groups; the conflict left tens of thousands of people dead.

Bishop Pierre Claverie and his driver were killed by a remote-controlled bomb left by the bishop's residence, and the seven Trappist monks, who had been kidnapped from the monastery of Tibhirine, were beheaded by a group of Islamic terrorists trained by the al-Qaida network. The monks' story was treated in the film "Of Gods and Men," which won the grand prize at its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

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Update: Colombian coroner offers free burials to destitute Venezuelan migrants

IMAGE: CNS photo/Manuel Rueda

By Manuel Rueda

RIOHACHA, Colombia (CNS) -- It's midafternoon and the cemetery known as People Like Us is eerily quiet.

As the corpse of Eduardo Sanchez is removed from a white funeral car and placed in a coffin, his daughter starts to sob and gets close to the coffin to take one last picture of her father. The rest of Sanchez's family watches from afar or turns away in sorrow. The stench and sight of the badly decomposed body are too much to take in.

"He was in a morgue for four weeks," Sanchez's niece, Gisangie Navarro, explains. "But we come from Venezuela, and we did not have enough money to take him anywhere. Now he can finally get a Christian burial."

As hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans migrate across South America to escape hyperinflation and food shortages, some are dying in poverty far from home.

A small cemetery in Colombia's northern La Guajira department has become a haven for the corpses of these dead migrants and is helping their bereaved families to find some peace and comfort as they struggle to get by. The cemetery also has helped a retired coroner find her calling, as she undertakes a task that few aid groups have contemplated.

"God has a purpose for all of us," says Sonia Bermudez, the coroner and founder of People Like Us cemetery. "And my job is to take care of the dead, and make sure that everyone gets a decent burial."

Bermudez says her interest in working with the dead started at age 13, when her father was the security guard in her hometown's public cemetery. In those days, she recalls, bodies that were not claimed by anyone were buried in large pits without coffins and often with no clothes. Sometimes, officials put a bag over the corpses' heads to give the burial a small sense of dignity.

"I thought it was very unfair how these people were buried, in comparison to folks who had families that paid for funerals," Bermudez says. "So eventually I decided to get involved."

At 15, Bermudez was assisting the local coroner in autopsies, and she started to bury unclaimed bodies. Then, after studying forensic sciences in Colombia's capital, she returned home to practice her craft. Eventually, she started the cemetery that has become her life's work.

"There were always bodies in the morgue that no one was claiming," she explains. "So, I started to take them to a plot of land that the municipal government was not using, and I buried them there."

Initially, Bermudez buried mostly homeless people who no one claimed. Then, as violence between guerilla groups and rightwing paramilitaries engulfed her province of La Guajira, she started to bury the corpses of war victims dumped in the desert outside her hometown of Riohacha.

Colombia eventually became less violent, and a 2016 peace deal between the government and the country's main guerilla group helped to further diminish the country's murder rate. But Bermudez's cemetery is as busy as ever.

The forensic scientist, now 64, spends most of her time now burying Venezuelan migrants who have died in poverty in northern Colombia.

Bermudez says so far this year she has already buried 30 Venezuelans, free of charge. After putting the dead in simple coffins purchased by donors, she places them in rectangular cement crypts that bear their names and are decorated with synthetic flowers.

"When these (Venezuelan) families come to me, they are in a very precarious situation," Bermudez says. "Some barely have enough money for their own food, and often they are traveling from other cities and they have nowhere to stay."

Bermudez has had to spend her own money to help bury the large numbers of destitute migrants who have died in Colombia recently, but she says no one else in northern Colombia is providing a similar service.

A separate municipal cemetery, managed by the Catholic Church, charges fees of at least $100 for burial spaces, and coffins start at $200. Those amounts are unaffordable for migrants, who usually make about $5 a day.

"The priests and the funeral homes always need to charge something," Bermudez says. She adds that most people at her modest cemetery are buried without a religious ceremony, "because priests charge for that, too."

Bermudez says she is sure that God is helping her out in her "mission." She recently got construction materials from the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, so she built more crypts for her cemetery. The agency also helped her cover the costs of transporting the corpses of dead migrants to her graveyard.

"When I do this, I feel full of peace and tranquility," she says. "I feel that I am helping to fulfill God's will."

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After meeting pope, cardinal says he's hopeful about addressing crisis

IMAGE: CNS photo/Bob Roller

By Greg Erlandson

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston struck a determinedly hopeful tone after his long-awaited meeting with Pope Francis to discuss the growing sexual abuse crisis in the United States.

"I myself am filled with hope," he said, "but I also realize all these things might take purpose and time."

The cardinal spoke following a noon meeting Sept. 13 at the Vatican. Cardinal DiNardo, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was joined in his meeting with the pope by: Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors; Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles, vice president of the USCCB; and Msgr. J. Brian Bransfield, general secretary of the conference.

"The Holy Father is the important figure for us in this," Cardinal DiNardo said. "He sees the problem all over the church and throughout the world."

While the cardinal did not want to discuss the specifics of the private meeting beyond a statement released by the U.S. bishops, he did describe the encounter as "very, very fruitful."

"It was lengthy, and we shared a lot of thoughts and ideas together," the cardinal told Catholic News Service, "so I found the meeting very good from that point of view."

"The pope is well informed," the cardinal said, "and he's also very, very attentive to what has happened to abuse victims in the church in the United States."

It had been a whirlwind week for the cardinal. He arrived in Rome Sept. 12 following a meeting with the U.S. bishops' Administrative Committee, which consists of conference officers, regional representatives and the chairs of all the conference committees. Its task was to set the agenda for the November general assembly in Baltimore of all of the country's bishops.

Cardinal DiNardo described the Administrative Committee meeting as "sober."

"I thought there was a good deal of unity of the bishops on where we need to go" and on the fact that "we have to move into action" in terms of addressing the abuse crisis, he said. The cardinal said the bishops must be "united in purpose on solutions."

Cardinal DiNardo originally announced Aug. 16 that he was requesting a meeting with Pope Francis. The request followed the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse cases in six Pennsylvania dioceses and the announcement of credible allegations of child sexual abuse committed by Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, the former cardinal-archbishop of Washington.

In his statement Aug. 16, Cardinal DiNardo said the USCCB Executive Committee had established three goals: "an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick; an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints."

When asked about the three priorities after the meeting with the pope, the cardinal said: "I think we can make movement on those things. I think we have to do it step by step."

Since Aug. 1, Cardinal DiNardo has issued five statements responding to various aspects of the sexual abuse crisis and has called for greater transparency and accountability in the church, particularly on the part of the bishops.

When asked what role there could be for Catholic media, he said they "have to tell the truth, and they have to tell the truth in a way that is very balanced." Acknowledging the anger and even "rage" among some commentators, he said the task of Catholic media is "speaking the truth, but never forgetting the role of charity."

When asked where he finds hope during the current wave of scandals and controversy, he said, "Our trust is in the Lord."

"Even the pope today mentioned the cross, that you need to ' be crucified with the Lord -- that's the only way you can deal with this, go through it. You have to listen to other people, and you hope that in that shared vision of mission, of cooperating together, you grow in hope."

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