Signs of the Times

FEMA Gave Bishops Runaround on Disaster

Church officials got the runaround from the Federal Emergency Management Agency when they wanted to know what federal plans were for helping the regions devastated by Hurricane Katrina, said the head of the bishops’ hurricane relief task force. The harsh criticism of FEMA came from Archbishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, named earlier this year to head the task force coordinating church aid to the regions devastated by the hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "It was clear to me that not a whole lot of help was coming from FEMA," he said. Bishops’ conference officials had to engage in several conference calls with the White House before Jim Towey, head of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, was appointed as a liaison to the bishops, but still the answers we were getting were not clear, said Archbishop Fiorenza in a report on Nov. 15 to the fall meeting of the U.S. bishops. The task force believes strongly that we must continue to put strong pressure on the White House and Congress so that we get the needed answers, he said.

Irish Politician Urges End to Special Relationship

The special relationship between the Catholic Church and the Irish Republic must end in light of reports of mishandling of clerical sex abuse cases, said an Irish politician. The first response of the state must be to unequivocally state that the special relationship is no more, said Liz O’Donnell, a junior minister of state in the Department of Foreign Affairs. From now on, with that veil of deference removed, the state can deal with the church authorities in the same way as it would any other voluntary or state agency that provides services for children and families, O’Donnell told the Irish Parliament in early November. The Ferns Report, issued in late October after an independent inquiry into the handling of allegations of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Ferns, criticized church and government officials for failure to take action on behalf of the children. Since the report was released, the Irish government has announced it will investigate how each diocese is complying with child protection guidelines published by the church nearly 10 years ago.


Pakistani Leaders Call for Inquiry Into Attacks

Pakistani church leaders wrote to the country’s president asking for a high-level judicial inquiry into attacks and desecration at three churches and other church properties. In a letter dated Nov. 14 to President Pervez Musharraf, church leaders described the destructive acts at Sangla Hills, about 140 miles south of Islamabad, and asked for exemplary punishment for the culprits. They said a well-organized mob estimated at 3,000 men attacked the churches on Nov. 12, according to a report by UCA News, an Asian church news agency based in Thailand. According to the letter, the mob first attacked a Presbyterian church, burning 250 Bibles and gutting the pastor’s residence. Then the mob hit a Catholic church, where the attackers burned Bibles and other religious books and documents, including family records dating back to 1912. According to media, the third church attacked belongs to the Salvation Army.

Bishops Approve Lay Ministry Guidelines

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops approved on Nov. 15 a major document giving guidelines on lay ecclesial ministry after some debate over use of the terms minister and ministry with regard to laypeople serving the church. The debate ended after Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., long one of the country’s most noted Catholic theologians, rose to defend the usage in the text, saying the drafters were very careful to see that the terminology is in accord with the documents of the Holy See and with a whole series of documents previously published by this conference. The 82-page document, Co-workers in the Vineyard of the Lord, needed approval by two-thirds of the entire membership of the conference, or 182 votes. It passed by a vote of 190-49, with five abstentions. Bishop Dale J. Melczek of Gary, Ind., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on the Laity, and Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., chairman of the Subcommittee on Lay Ministry, presented the document to the bishops. Bishop Melczek described it as a resource for guiding the development of lay ecclesial ministry, a rapidly growing phenomenon in Catholic parishes across the country.

German Ministry Allows Pope to Keep Passport

The German government has confirmed that Pope Benedict XVI may keep his German passport, after a Green Party parliamentarian insisted this could violate a national law prohibiting dual citizenship. In a statement on Nov. 8, the Berlin-based Foreign Ministry said Bavarian-born Pope Benedict automatically acquired Vatican citizenship at his papal election on April 19, without directly requesting it. The statement added that Vatican citizenship was granted only temporarily in connection with the exercise of particular functions, rather than with birth or ethnic descent. It said German law barred dual citizenship only when citizens applied for foreign nationality. The ministry was responding to attempts by a Green Party Bundestag deputy, Hans-Christian Stroebele, to have the pope stripped of his passport to comply with citizenship regulations.

Bishops to Back Spanish Friar’s Canonization Cause

The U.S. bishops gave their consent to backing the cause for canonization of a Spanish friar who argued against the enslavement of native peoples by Spanish conquistadors. By a voice vote, the bishops voted to back the cause for canonization of Fray Bartolomé de las Casas on Nov. 15, during their fall general meeting in Washington, D.C. The request to support the cause came at the request of the Spanish bishops’ conference. The matter had been referred earlier to the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, which said the bishops could act on the request if they chose. Fray Bartolomé, a Dominican, was the first bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, in the 16th century. As bishop, he was an outspoken critic of the barbarities committed by Spanish conquerors against indigenous peoples. His defense of the oppressed resulted in his forced resignation after only nine years as head of the Diocese of Chiapas, when the Spanish crown sided with powerful colonial figures the Dominican had angered.

John Jay College Chosen for Sexual Abuse Study

The U.S. bishops’ National Review Board selected the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to conduct a major study of the causes and context of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy. The announcement was made on Nov. 16 by Patricia Ewers, board chairperson, during a meeting with the U.S. bishops, who were in Washington, D.C., for their annual fall meeting. The aim of the study is to help church leaders better understand the problem and improve prevention measures. The $3 million study was called for in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People approved by the bishops in 2002. The charter contains church policies to stem sexual abuse of children. The charter said the study was needed to understand the problem more fully and to enhance the effectiveness of our future response. The study plan calls for John Jay College to work with Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York and other experts across the country.

Pope Will Attend Bishops’ Meeting in Brazil

Pope Benedict XVI has chosen the Marian sanctuary of Aparecida, Brazil, for the Fifth General Conference of Latin American Bishops in 2007, and said he plans to attend the meeting. The Latin American bishops’ council, known as Celam, published the news recently on its Web site. It said the pope communicated his decision in a meeting with Chilean Cardinal Francisco Errázuriz Ossa of Santiago, Cardinal Cláudio Hummes of São Paulo, Brazil, and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina.

There had been discussion about the possibility of holding the meeting in Rome, to make it more convenient for Pope Benedict, but the pope decided to travel to Latin America because he understands the significance of his presence in our countries, said Cardinal Errázuriz, the president of Celam, in a statement. He said the general conference will take place in May 2007. It is expected to focus on the discipleship and role of Catholics in today’s world. Brazil has the largest Catholic population in the world. At the recent meeting in Rome of the World Synod of Bishops, however, Cardinal Hummes said the number of Catholics was declining by about 1 percent each year.

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