Pope prods Obama on freedom of conscience
In a brief public statement released after their meeting in the Vatican, the Holy See indicated that in their 52-minute conversation, Pope Francis and the President had discussed international affairs, with the Pope stressing respect for international law and the desire for negotiated solutions to conflicts.
However the Vatican statement also strongly emphasised concern for "the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection" - an unmistakable reference to the Church's concern about the Obama administration's effort to impose mandatory contraceptive coverage in healthcare programs.
The Vatican statement also mentioned that Pope Francis and President Obama had spoken about immigration reform, and "their common commitment to the eradication of human trafficking throughout the world."
As he left the library of the apostolic palace, where an exchange of gifts took place, President Obama asked the Holy Father to pray for him and his family.
President Obama's visit to the Vatican, and his first meeting with Pope Francis, had been heavily anticipated, with American commentators especially anxious to see whether the Pope would indicate his support for the President's policies on some issues or opposition on others.
The Pope's conversation with the President was private, however, leaving the Vatican's public statement - with its clear reference to disagreement over the contraceptive mandate - as the only indication of how the conversation unfolded.
Catholic World News
Ministry to fallen-away Catholics launches call to confession
This Lent, a ministry dedicated to fallen-away Catholics launched an initiative specifically geared to bring Catholics back to the practice of confession (www.GoodConfession.com).
The Catholics Come Home ministry airs commercials to encourage lapsed Catholics or just those curious about the faith to explore the Church.
Their new website aims to encourage Catholics to more regularly go to confession and to learn how to improve their spiritual lives.
An excerpt from the website explains, "Whether you frequent the Sacrament of Reconciliation or you have been away from confession for years, we are here to provide you with easy-to-read and easy-to-use resources to help you learn about the sacrament, understand how to go to confession, and, most importantly, learn how practically to live out the priest's words in the confessional to 'go and sin no more'."
The Catholics Come Home founder and president Tom Peterson said, "We need this outreach! If we truly desire holiness in our Church and in our personal lives, there must be an effort to make confession a regular habit again, learning also how to conform our lives to be more like Christ after we leave the confessional booth. Confession is one of the most underutilised sacraments, and so many Catholics report that they haven't been in years."
The Catholics Come Home outreach website features a new promotion, "Heavy Burdens", which depicts how reconciliation removes the weight of sin, bringing renewed peace, happiness, and God's sanctifying grace.
When Catholics Come Home aired one of its first of 36 diocesan promotional campaigns in Phoenix (2008) one priest reported more than 16 people in his confessional the first week, all of whom had been away from the Church for decades.
Zenit News Agency
Pope to Mafia: "Convert and cease to do evil"
"Convert, there is still time, so that you don't end up in hell." Pope Francis made this appeal to the Mafia during a Friday evening prayer vigil.
The Pope participated in the 19th Annual Day of Memory and Commitment, which is organised by the Italian association, Libera, to remember the victims of organised crime.
During the vigil, the names of over 800 victims, 82 of whom were children, were read. Addressing the participants, the Holy Father expressed his desire to share the hope that "the sense of responsibility, little by little, might conquer corruption in every part of the world."
The Pope also expressed his solidarity to the families of the victims of Mafia violence. "Thank you for your witness, because you are not closed, you are open, you have come out to tell your story of pain and hope," he said. "This is so important, especially for young people!"
Mafia violence, particularly against children has been on the rise in Italy. Recently, a two-year-old child was killed, along with his parents, after local Mafia gunmen forced the car they were travelling in off the road and shot more than 15 bullets through the windshield. The Pope described that murder as "merciless".
Pope Francis also addressed the members of the Mafia, calling on them to "convert" and "cease to do evil".
"Convert, I ask it on my knees it is for your own good," he said. "This life you are living now, it won't bring you pleasure, it won't give you joy, it won't bring you happiness.
"The power, the money, that you possess now from so many dirty jobs, from so many Mafia crimes, is blood money, it is power soaked in blood, and you cannot take it with you to the next life.
"Convert, there is still time, so that you don't end up in hell. That is what awaits you if you continue on this path. You had a father and a mother: think of them. Cry a little and convert."
Zenit News Agency
Rabbi Skorka on Pope's Holy Land trip
"Whether I am present or not, I am convinced that this trip will usher in a new era in Jewish-Christian dialogue: the era of empathy."
These were the sentiments of Rabbi Abraham Skorka, rector of the Rabbinical Seminary of Buenos Aires, on Pope Francis' forthcoming trip to the Holy Land.
Rabbi Skorka, a personal friend of the Holy Father, was interviewed by the Italian bishops' newspaper, Avvenire, on his friendship with the Pope and the impact of the Pope's first visit to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Jordan on 24-26 May.
When he served as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, the then Cardinal Bergoglio and Rabbi Skorka worked together in fostering relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community in Argentina.
"A few days after his election, [the Pope] wrote to tell me that he would like to continue our journey. And that is what we try to do," he said. "Even if we don't hear from each other often, for him friendship is a fundamental value. He has not internalised that throwaway culture in which people are used and then thrown away."
The Argentinian rabbi, who last met with Francis on 17 January, said the Pope's relationship with the Jewish people would continue along the line of his predecessors, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis, he said, has a distinctive style: "He is a man of simple words and profound gestures." Those gestures "strike at the heart, revealing the true meaning of those discourses that seem easy. Actions breaks down walls."
When asked if he believed that the Holy Father's visit would contribute to peace in the Holy Land, Rabbi Skorka agreed that the Pope would leave an indelible mark on the people.
"I don't expect [Pope] Francis to wave a magic wand and bring together Jews and Palestinians. But, his charisma and his great humility can give a powerful message of peace for the whole Middle East," he said. "It is a strategic region for world harmony, as taught to us by the prophets of the Bible, from Isaiah to Micah."
Reflecting on his friendship with Francis, Rabbi Skorka said what distinguishes the Pope the most is his capacity to give of himself to others, no matter what religion, nationality or political ideal.
When asked if he had seen any change in his friend in the last year, Rabbi Skorka responded: "He has honed his skills as a leader. But the man is the same. The friend is the same. Only dressed in white ..."
Zenit News Agency
Violent attacks on churches in Venezuela
Several churches have been subjected to violent attacks in recent times in Venezuela, including one in which a tabernacle was destroyed and hosts thrown to the ground, the country's bishops have said.
Msgr Victor Hugo Basabe, undersecretary of the Episcopal Conference of Venezuela, told reporters that "some churches that are located in places where the conflict was high, were attacked by violent groups", even "during Mass".
Msgr Rafael Conde, Bishop of Maracay, denounced the sacrilegious acts and vandalism that occurred in the parish of Our Lady of La Candelaria in la Otra Banda de La Victoria, in the municipality of Ribas, in the state of Aragua, where the tabernacle was destroyed, consecrated hosts thrown to the ground and the niche of the crucified Christ damaged.
Msgr Conde also reported another act of vandalism which took place in the parish of La Candelaria in Maracay. "Insecurity affects us all", he said.
Student-led protests in various Venezuelan cities have been continuing for a month. The protesters have had enough of shortages of some basic items, inflation running at 56 percent last year along with soaring violent crime.
President Nicolas Maduro has argued the political opposition is attempting to overthrow his democratically elected government. He has convened a third "Dialogue of Peace" but the opposition does not want to participate.
At least 22 people have died in street protests, according to the government.
The Secretary General of OAS (Organisation of American States), told the international press that the Catholic Church could mediate in bringing forth a true dialogue of peace and resolve the dire situation that Venezuela has been experiencing.
Zenit News Agency
Italian cardinal blasts "diversity education"
Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, the president of the Italian bishops' conference, tore into plans for "diversity education" in the nation's schools, saying that a proposed program aims as "an outright dictatorship aimed at flattening diversity".
The cardinal said that the program would promote "preconceived notions against the family, against religious faith, against the difference between father and mother". Italian schools, he warned, would become "indoctrination camps".
Cardinal Bagnasco, in an address to the Italian bishops' conference, also condemned abortion, and said that marital breakdown is wreaking havoc on society. "Today," he said, "the child is reduced to fodder for human trafficking, to slavery, to a cruel spectacle or into a weapon of war, when not exposed to abortion or the tragic possibility of euthanasia."
Catholic World News
Chile's "Day Of The Unborn Child"
For the first time this year in Chile, 25 March was officially celebrated as the Day of the Unborn Child, recognising the need to protect and care for expectant mothers and their children.
As part of the celebration, the foundation Chile Unido and the Santiago subway system will hand out more than 3,000 white roses to pregnant women, as a symbol of the purity of their unborn children.
The purpose of the initiative is to honour pregnant women and to raise awareness about the importance of caring for and protecting expectant mothers.
The flowers were handed out on 25 March at the Baquedano subway station in Santiago from 10am to 1pm. Volunteers from the foundation, as well as mothers who have been assisted by Chile Unido, helped distribute the roses.
Veronica Hoffmann, the executive director of Chile Unido, said the foundation "has been working for 15 years to strengthen the bonds between mother and child, by welcoming and helping pregnant women who are in vulnerable situations."
The foundation helps mothers in need until their children celebrate their first birthdays, and its work has shed light on the need to ensure healthy births for babies and to promote measures to care for and support pregnant women in their new role as mothers, Hoffman said.
The Day of the Unborn Child was first made a holiday in El Salvador in 1993 and later in Argentina, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Peru, Paraguay, Slovakia, Austria, Mexico, Spain, Uruguay, Brazil and Cuba.