Revival of US Catholicism
The story of the US Catholic Church in the early 21st century is one of excitement and renewal, say two authors of a book that examines successful dioceses, bishops and priests.
"The priesthood is growing. There are also vibrant signs of life among the laity and throughout the Church. Those stories need to be told," said Christopher White, the director of education and programs at the California-based Center for Bioethics and Culture.
White is the co-author of Renewal (Encounter Books) which makes the case that Catholicism is recovering from decades of "faithless practice" and confusion.
He said this recovery is especially evident in parishes that express "a stronger Catholic identity".
His co-author, Anne Hendershott, who is a sociology professor and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, said writing the book has given her new appreciation for US Catholicism.
The book Renewal focuses on areas where the Catholic Church is flourishing. Ordination rates are at a 20-year high with the average age of new priests continuing to decline while many seminaries are at full capacity.
The new generation of priests consists of men who are "wholly committed" to their vocation and consider celibacy "a grace and benefit to ministry," White said.
The book emphasises the role of bishops in creating a fruitful culture in their dioceses. It examines dioceses that have "transformational leaders", outlining their best practices. Bishops who are clear about Catholic teaching and "bold in defending the Church in the public square" attract more people, White said. Likewise, a demanding form of religion, rather than a lax one, tends to attract.
Hendershott and White both see room for continued improvement, especially in Catholic higher education. "Renewal is on the way, but we're not fully there yet," White said. Many institutions of Catholic higher education need to do better in helping pass on the faith to future generations and encourage new vocations, he said. "We've got to get that right."
Catholic News Agency
Christian martyrdom increases in 2013
Nearly twice the number of Christians were reported as dying for their faith in 2013 than the previous year, according to a new study by an organisation monitoring global religious persecution.
The World Watch List, issued by Open Doors USA each year, documents oppression of Christians throughout the world. Based on data from the past year, it ranks the 50 countries that are home to the worst treatment of Christians.
Along with the release of the 2014 report, Open Doors USA also offered information about global Christian persecution on its website, explaining that it had gathered evidence of 2,123 Christians who were killed for their faith in 2013, up from 1,201 such martyrdoms in 2012.
"This is a very minimal count based on what has been reported in the media and we can confirm," said Frans Veerman, head of research for the organisation. He suggested that the actual numbers could be much higher.
The Open Doors USA report estimated that around 100 million Christians were persecuted for their faith in 2013.
North Korea, which ranked as the worst offender on the 2013 World Watch List, remains the most dangerous country for Christians in 2014 as well, solely because of the national government's targeting of religious believers.
It is estimated that between 150,000 and 200,000 Christians in the country are imprisoned in forced labour camps while immediate family members are also targeted, often being placed in "re-education camps".
Conditions have also deteriorated in Somalia, which moved from the fifth most dangerous to the second most dangerous country for Christians in the past year.
In Syria, since 2011, the "four main groups of Christians" have faced great trials, with many leaving to seek refuge in other nations.
Among the other countries on the World Watch List were Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Colombia and China.
Egyptian bishops welcome new constitution
Coptic Catholic bishops in Egypt have hailed the result of the referendum on the country's new constitution, which they say represents a crucial step towards religious freedom and other civil liberties.
In interviews with the Catholic charity, Aid to the Church in Need, Bishops Kyrillos William of Assiut, Upper Egypt, Antonios Aziz Mina of Giza and Joannes Zakaria of Luxor all spoke of their delight at the vote, which officials say showed a 98% "yes" vote for the new constitution, drafted under the country's interim regime.
Speaking from Egypt, the bishops said that such an overwhelming majority result gave the government a clear mandate to act in accordance with the constitution's precepts, which are seen as centred on the principle of freedom for all, regardless of race, religion, sex and age.
The bishops highlighted the contrast between the new constitution and its predecessor, ratified in December 2012 under the ousted President Mohammed Morsi which was seen to assert the rights of Muslims at the expense of others.
The bishops also said the rights of Christians were well represented. They cited extracts from the constitution highlighting the priority need for new legislation governing the construction of churches, a process which until now has been very slow and cumbersome for Coptic leaders.
The bishops also highlighted a chapter in the constitution about Egypt's culture, saying that it specifically makes reference to the ancient Egyptian and Coptic periods, until now largely overlooked by Islamists whose sole interest has been the Islamic era from the 7th century onwards.
Zenit News Agency
Vatican's Medjugorje investigation completed
The Vatican has confirmed that the international Vatican commission investigating the events at Medjugorje is ready to submit its findings to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In a statement released on 18 January, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr Federico Lombardi confirmed that the four-year-old commission held its last meeting on 17 January.
Once the CDF has examined the commission's findings, they will be given to the Pope who will have the final say. There is no indication at the moment how long it will be until a final decision is known.
The commission, formed in 2010, is made up of an international panel of cardinals, bishops, theologians and other experts. Their investigation covers mainly the first phase of apparitions that began in 1981. These apparitions are said to continue regularly to this day, attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.
Although many conversions have been witnessed in Medjugorje and countless people helped in their faith, the authenticity of the apparitions remains highly contentious. Last November CDF prefect Archbishop Gerhard Mueller unsettled devotees of the pilgrimage destination when he sent out an instruction to US bishops warning against allowing the seer Ivan Dragicevic to go on a speaking tour of the country.
Donal Foley, an expert on Medjugorje, noted Pope Francis' recent comment that Our Lady is a Mother "not a postmaster of the post office sending out messages every day". Foley added that a "compromise verdict" is possible that could allow Medjugorje to continue to be a place of pilgrimage without approval.
The Vatican currently does not forbid anyone visiting Medjugorje, but visitors are asked not to engage in public celebrations that take for granted the authenticity of the apparitions.
Zenit News Agency
Strong US support for abortion restrictions
A new survey from the Knights of Columbus reports that most Americans support abortion restrictions, prompting calls for more legislative and judicial action against abortion.
"The American people understand that abortion is bad for everyone, and even those who strongly support abortion want it reduced significantly, so it is time that our lawmakers and our courts reflected this reality," Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, said on 21 January.
"Four decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion remains at odds with the conscience and common sense of the American people."
The results of the survey were released ahead of the March for Life, which marked the 41st anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision that mandated permissive abortion laws nationwide.
The survey, conducted by The Marist Poll, reports that almost 75 percent of Americans favour a ban on abortions after 20 weeks except to save the life of the mother. Eighty-four percent would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy, including 58 percent of respondents who self-describe as "strongly pro-choice".
Almost 80 percent support a 24-hour waiting period while 62 percent favour changing laws to allow for some restrictions on abortion and 58 percent support showing a woman an ultrasound image of her unborn child at least a day before a scheduled abortion.
Most respondents said that abortion causes more harm than good to a woman, more than half said that life begins at conception and another 62 percent said that abortion is morally wrong.
Catholic News Agency
Burmese bishop sees "new dawn" of hope
Archbishop Charles Bo of Yangon, Burma's largest city, has released a New Year's message encouraging the Burmese to remain united and to strive for peace in their homeland. "We are preparing for the dawn of a new era of freedom, democracy, justice, peace and hope ... a new era of fraternity.
"There are many reasons for hope ... We are just at the very beginning of a new chapter in our country's history."
Burma, also known as Myanmar, was ruled by a military junta from 1962 to 2011, and has a history of ethnic strife, corruption, and human rights violations. But the 2011 dissolution of the junta ushered in reforms.
"In the past two years the restrictions on freedom of expression have been relaxed, there is more space for civil society, the media and political actors, there have been preliminary steps towards peace in the ethnic states, and many political prisoners have been released", said the Archbishop.
However, he condemned the persistent violence that has plagued the nation, including persecution of the Rohingya, rape, human trafficking, looting of churches, destruction of mosques, and attacks on civilians in Kachin state.
The Rohingya are a minority group who practise Islam and have long been persecuted by the country's Buddhist majority with rioting displacing 125,000 Rohingya in 2012. "We hear of the tragedy of an entire people, known as 'Rohingyas', treated as if they were not human [and] as we begin to enjoy more freedom of speech, some have used this to preach hatred and incite violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters."
He appealed to the Buddhist principles of compassion (karuna) and loving-kindness (metta) to be shown to the Rohingya, who are denied Burmese citizenship and treated as illegal immigrants.
Vatican communications meeting in Cuba
The Pontifical Council for Social Communications held a meeting in Cuba in February. Thirty-five bishops from Central America and the Caribbean took part.
They reflected upon the meaning of communication in today's world, how to communicate and what to communicate, according to Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, the Council president.
The seminar focused on the Pope's message for World Social Communications Day, "Communication at the service of an authentic culture of encounter", with the principal aim of offering bishops the tools for improving their communication strategies in their dioceses.
Although Cuba remains a Communist nation, Catholics there have greater religious freedom than those in other Communist countries such as China and Vietnam, although restrictions and crackdowns on Christians still occur.
Blessed John Paul II visited the country in 1998 and Benedict XVI did so in 2012.
Zenit News Agency