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Human rights commission ‘outraged’ as State Department excludes Nigeria from watchlist

State officials walk past injured victims on hospital beds being treated for wounds following an attack by gunmen at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, southwest Nigeria, on June 5, 2022. / AFP via Getty Images

St. Louis, Mo., Dec 5, 2022 / 15:00 pm (CNA).

For the second year in a row Nigeria has been left off of the U.S. State Department’s list of countries that engage in or tolerate the world’s worst religious freedom violations, despite regular reports of kidnappings and killings of Christians, sparking outcry from members of a bipartisan government watchdog group. 

For more than two decades, the U.S. president has been required to annually review the status of religious freedom in every country in the world and designate those governments and entities that perpetrate or tolerate “severe” religious freedom violations as Countries of Particular Concern (CPCs). U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced this year’s designations on Dec. 2, and although several Islamic terrorist groups active in Nigeria were listed, Nigeria itself was not. 

In Nigeria as a whole, at least 60,000 Christians have been killed, many by their Muslim countrymen, over the past two decades. An estimated 3,462 Christians were killed in Nigeria in the first 200 days of 2021, or 17 per day, according to a study.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement that its leaders were “outraged” by Nigeria’s exclusion from the list as well as the exclusion of India, where reports of Hindu nationalism and violence against Christians have emerged in recent years. 

“There is no justification for the State Department’s failure to recognize Nigeria or India as egregious violators of religious freedom, as they each clearly meet the legal standards for designation as CPCs. USCIRF is tremendously disappointed that the Secretary of State did not implement our recommendations and recognize the severity of the religious freedom violations that both USCIRF and the State Department have documented in those countries,” said USCIRF chair Nury Turkel

“The State Department’s own reporting includes numerous examples of particularly severe religious freedom violations in Nigeria and India.”

Nigeria was included in the State Department’s list of CPCs in 2020 but not in the 2021 or 2022 lists, despite Christians reporting little to no improvement in their situations. USCIRF has been recommending the designation of Nigeria as a CPC since 2009. 

Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation and the demographics overall are almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims. Nigeria’s Christians, especially in the northern part of the country, have for the past several decades been subjected to brutal property destruction, killings, and kidnappings, often at the hands of Islamic extremist groups. Some U.S. and Nigerian officials have characterized the attacks as climate-change-spurred clashes over resources and land, a claim that Christian leaders have denounced as “incorrect and far-fetched.”

Nigerian Christians have told CNA that the Muslim-controlled government has largely responded slowly, inadequately, or not at all to the problem of Christian persecution. President Muhammadu Buhari’s government, in power since 2015, has been accused by Amnesty International and other human rights groups of ineptitude, indifference, and even complicity in the surge of raids, killings, kidnappings, and rapes targeting Catholics and other Christians.

Bishop Jude Arogundade, bishop of the Diocese of Ondo in southwestern Nigeria, observed to CNA that “whenever the [U.S.] Democrats are in power they look away from the killings of Christians in Nigeria. It was very visible during Obama’s administration. We will keep up the pressure to get the world’s attention. Those who have died will not die in vain.”

Arogundade knows firsthand about the persecution that Christians are facing in Nigeria — in June, a group of armed men attacked a parish in his diocese, St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church in Owo, killing at least 41 people. That community is “still waiting for justice,” Arogundade told CNA. 

Other Nigerian Catholic leaders such as Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah have criticized the government harshly for their “silence” despite numerous attacks on Christians. 

Last summer, five Republican U.S. senators signed a letter to Blinken calling on the secretary of state to redesignate Nigeria as a Country of Particular Concern.

India is also a country whose government has been accused of inaction in the face of Christian persecution. In recent years, Christians in India have decried an apparent rise in anti-Christian violence and Hindu extremism whereby Hindu mobs — often fueled by false accusations of forced conversions or reports of the eating of beef — have attacked Christians and Muslims, destroyed churches, and disrupted religious worship services.

Among the State Department’s CPC designees for this year were Burma/Myanmar, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. 

The State Department also proclaimed several groups to be Entities of Particular Concern: al-Shabab, Boko Haram, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Houthis, ISIS-Greater Sahara, ISIS-West Africa, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin, the Taliban, and the Wagner Group. 

Douglas Burton contributed to this story.

Canadian veteran offered assisted suicide after asking for wheelchair help

Christine Gauthier spoke before she competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Para canoe. / YouTube Screenshot 2016 video

Boston, Mass., Dec 5, 2022 / 14:30 pm (CNA).

A former Paralympian who served in the Canadian military contacted Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC) in 2019 to ask for a home wheelchair lift to help her maneuver her home more easily. 

Christine Gauthier testified before Canada’s House of Commons veterans committee last week that she was shocked when the VAC employee offered her assisted suicide as a solution to her suffering.

Gauthier told the MPs that she has fought for wheelchair accommodation for five years, according to cbc.ca

“I have a letter saying that if you’re so desperate, madam, we can offer you MAID, medical assistance in dying,” Gauthier said, according to the outlet. She agreed to provide a copy of the letter to the MPs, the outlet reported.

“I was like, ‘I can’t believe that you will … give me an injection to help me die, but you will not give me the tools I need to help me live,’” Gauthier said in a Dec. 2 interview with Global News.

“It was really shocking to hear that kind of comment.”

Gauthier served in the heavy artillery section of the Canadian Army and was severely injured in a training accident in 1995, according to canoeicf.com. Her back, knees, and hips took heavy damage after a jump into a trench, and she underwent a series of surgeries, but to no avail. She has competed in several paralympic sports including para ice hockey, para nordic skiing, and para canoe sprinting. 

A portion of Gauthier’s interview can be seen below.

Gauthier said that she wrote a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with concerns about the unnamed employee’s offer of assisted suicide. 

The July 9, 2021, letter from the retired corporal said that “if you do not want to allow me to live with autonomy and dignity, put an end to my suffering and my days but unfortunately, you will need to do it, as my convictions and my faith prevent me from doing so,” according to Global News.

Trudeau told reporters on Friday that the VAC employee’s comments were “absolutely unacceptable,” according to Global News.

“I have said repeatedly that this is absolutely unacceptable, and as soon as we heard about this we took action,” he said.

“We are following up with investigations and we are changing protocols to ensure what should seem obvious to all of us: that it is not the place of Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), who are there to support those people who stepped up to serve their country, to offer them medical assistance in dying,” Trudeau added.

Lawrence MacAulay, minister of VAC, said before the same committee last week that four or five instances of veterans being offered assisted suicide as an option have occurred, cbc.ca reported. A VAC agent has been suspended in connection with those reports, cbc.ca reported. 

It’s unclear whether the suspended agent was the same agent that Gauthier dealt with. MacAulay called on veterans who have experienced similar treatment to report it, the outlet reported.

Assisted suicide in Canada was federally legalized in 2016, according to the government’s annual report on the program. In 2021, 10,064 people died as a result, which accounted for more than 3% of deaths in the North American country. 

Each year since its legalization, every Canadian province has seen a rise in assisted suicide, which is euphemistically coined “Medical Assistance in Dying.”

Since its legalization, almost 32,000 deaths have occurred through assisted suicide.

For those receiving assistance in suicide in 2021, 65.6% cited cancer as an underlying medical condition. Almost 19% cited cardiovascular conditions, with 12.4% citing chronic respiratory conditions. Over 12% cited neurological conditions. According to the report, 75% of the recipients cited one main underlying medical condition. The rest cited two or more. 

In a Saturday column for the New York Times, Ross Douthat criticized Canada’s assisted suicide policy.

“It is not barbaric for the law to acknowledge hard choices in end-of-life care, about when to withdraw life support or how aggressively to manage agonizing pain,” he wrote.

“It is barbaric, however, to establish a bureaucratic system that offers death as a reliable treatment for suffering and enlists the healing profession in delivering this ‘cure.’ And while there may be worse evils ahead, this isn’t a slippery slope argument: When 10,000 people are availing themselves of your euthanasia system every year, you have already entered the dystopia,” he wrote.

Who’s behind those ‘He Gets Us’ ads about Jesus?

A He Gets Us ad in Washington, D.C. / Credit: He Gets Us

Denver, Colo., Dec 5, 2022 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

Television, internet, and billboard ads encouraging people to take a deeper look at Jesus have been running across the U.S. since March, thanks to the nondenominational Christian campaign He Gets Us.

With a $100 million price tag and planned Super Bowl spots, He Gets Us is an initiative of the Servant Foundation. The foundation is managed by the Kansas-based foundation and donor-advised fund The Signatry.

“Funding for He Gets Us comes from a diverse group of individuals and entities with a common goal of sharing Jesus’ story authentically,” Jason Vanderground, spokesperson for He Gets Us, told CNA Dec. 2.

The specific donors are tough to discover. In March, Christianity Today reported that the funds came from “a small group of wealthy anonymous families.”

The Signatry was founded in the year 2000 by Bill High, a Kansas lawyer turned philanthropic adviser. The fund has received more than $4 billion in contributions and has helped make more than $3 billion in charitable grants, its website says. 

According to its website, The Signatry funds “discipleship and outreach efforts, Bible translations, cultural care, church plants, anti-human-trafficking missions, student ministries, poverty alleviation, clean water initiatives, and so much more.”

A He Gets Us ad in New York City. Credit: He Gets Us
A He Gets Us ad in New York City. Credit: He Gets Us

The He Gets Us website describes its campaign as “a movement to reintroduce people to the Jesus of the Bible and his confounding love and forgiveness. We believe his words, example, and life have relevance in our lives today and offer hope for a better future.”

The organization says it is not a political organization of any kind and has no church or denominational affiliation.

“We simply want everyone to understand the authentic Jesus as he’s depicted in the Bible — the Jesus of radical forgiveness, compassion, and love,” its website says.

He Gets Us partners include the National Association of Evangelicals and Christianity Today Magazine, Religion News Service reported.

A He Gets Us ad. Credit: He Gets Us
A He Gets Us ad. Credit: He Gets Us

In a series of Instagram posts, the campaign asks: “Have you ever been bullied? Have you ever felt betrayed? Have you ever been unfairly judged? So was Jesus.”

One video ad depicts Jesus as a rebel and his disciples as a gang that drew opposition from community and religious leaders for spreading love, not hate.

Another ad describes a controversial figure who drew opposition, challenges, and insults. He refused to retaliate “because he believed he could change the world… by turning the other cheek.” It closes with the phrase “Jesus gets us.”

Since the campaign launched in March, it has reached more than 120 million people in the U.S., according to Vanderground. It has aired ads during prime-time national television and major live sports broadcasts. Its short videos, in English and Spanish, have received 374 million views on YouTube.

The campaign aims to provoke interest from non-Christians.

Visitors to the He Gets Us website will find articles that describe Jesus as someone who “invited everyone to sit at his table.” They describe how Jesus was “fed up with politics, too” and how he faced criticism. “How would Jesus be judged today?” another article asks.

To the question of what Jesus would think of teen moms, it notes that Jesus was born to a teenage Mary.

The He Gets Us website offers reading plans about Jesus, drawing on Bible passages. The campaign offers a text-message system for users to receive messages of prayer or positivity. The website can connect those interested with someone local to learn about Jesus or with groups where they can ask questions about life and faith.

“Our hope is that you see how Jesus experienced challenges and emotions just like we have. We want to provide a safe place to ask questions, including the tough ones,” the website explains. “We are also about sharing Jesus’ openness to people that others might have excluded. His message went out to all. And though you may see religious people as often hypocritical or judgmental, know that Jesus saw that, too — and didn’t like it either. Instead, Jesus taught and offered radical compassion and stood up for the marginalized.”

The website offers T-shirts, hats, and stickers with the phrases “Jesus was wrongly judged” or “Jesus was an immigrant.” They are available free of charge, provided the person placing the order has shown love to a stranger, forgiven someone, or paid someone a compliment.

Vanderground said that although He Gets Us is not associated with any particular denomination or church, many Catholics are involved in the development of the campaign and it has received positive feedback from Catholic media.

“As we work to call up Christians to reflect Jesus and prepare them for new conversations with spiritual explorers, it is vital that we engage Catholics who represent 70 million people in the U.S.,” he said.

The He Gets Us campaign plans to make a special impact at a time when many Americans are watching their televisions early next year.

“We are excited about the opportunity to have two ads during the upcoming Super Bowl on Feb. 12, 2023,” Vanderground said. “He Gets Us is just eight months into a long-term, sustained effort to create a new movement to increase the respect and relevance for Jesus in our culture and call up Christians to reflect him in their interactions with others.”

Catholic student center in Nebraska receives shooting threat, signed ‘Jane’s Revenge’

null / Shutterstock

Boston, Mass., Dec 4, 2022 / 13:23 pm (CNA).

A Catholic campus ministry center at the University of Nebraska received a death threat Saturday morning in a note signed “Jane’s Revenge,” a calling card used by pro-abortion activists. 

“If our right to abortion in Bellevue is taken away due to the attempt to pass an abortion ban and it gets passed[,] we will shoot up your Newman center with our new AR-74 rifles. Sincerely, Jane’s Revenge,” the note, which was posted online, says.

The note was addressed to Father Dan Andrews, pastor of the St. John Paul II Newman Center. 

The threat is the latest in a series of intimidation tactics used against pro-life organizations. In other instances, the threats have come in the form of spray-painted messages with a variation on the words, “If abortion isn’t safe, neither are you.”

Located near the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Scott campus, the Newman Center is about a 14-minute drive south of Omaha in the town of Bellevue. 

Kristan Hawkins, president of the pro-life group Students for Life, shared the note on social media. KETV.com reported that the pro-life group was hosting a “political leadership workshop” at the Newman center on Saturday morning. 

“This morning, a threatening note was found on the St. John Paul II Newman Center Oratory door. The author of the note claims to represent Jane’s Revenge,” a Saturday statement from the Newman Center reads. 

Andrews called the note “unsettling and unfortunate” but added that the “Christ-centered residents and parishioners are undeterred,” according to the statement.

“This obviously causes us great concern. Our number one priority is the safety of our students,” the priest said in the statement. “We are thankful for UNO Police’s prompt response and attention to this threat.”

In a string of tweets, Hawkins related what took place, and called on the Biden administration to act against “pro-abortion terrorist groups.”

“BREAKING: Jane’s Revenge threatens to shoot pro-lifers. This morning in Nebraska, our team arrived for our @SFLAction Political Leadership Workshop where we are gathering activists from across the state to strategize about how to use @studentsforlife’s Campaign for Abortion Free Cities to shut down the late-term abortion facility in the state. When we arrived, a death threat via guns from Jane’s Revenge was posted on the door. We’ve called the police and are scrambling to make it safe.” 

“We are headed towards tragedy if [U.S. Attorney General] Merrick Garland continues to refuse to act to protect peaceful pro-lifers from pro-abortion terrorist groups. Sadly, the incendiary comments of leaders like Hillary Clinton yesterday comparing pro-lifers to the Taliban is case in point the poisoned political climate being deliberately fostered by corporate abortion and their allies,” Hawkins added.

“The Biden administration is laying the groundwork for deadly violence against pro-lifers while they support violence against those in the womb. They must act.”

The University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Department of Public Safety said in a Saturday statement that the Douglas County Sheriff’s office and the Omaha Police Department are working together to investigate the threat and increase security measures. 

The Newman Center and the campus are maintaining normal operations, the statement said. 

“Individuals with information that can assist with the investigation are encouraged to contact UNO Public Safety by phone at 402.554.2648, by email at [email protected], or by text using U-TIP. The latest information will be published on the UNO News Center as it becomes available,” the statement said. 

CNA reached out to the Archdiocese of Omaha for comment but did not immediately hear back by time of publication.

Editor's note: A correction has been made to this article. The handwritten note mentioned in the article reads, "we will shoot up your Newman center with our new AR-74 rifles," not "AR-14" rifles as was previously reported here.

The mighty Mississippi was once named ‘River of the Immaculate Conception.’ Here’s why

A bridge over the Mississippi River near St. Louis / Checubus / Shutterstock

St. Louis, Mo., Dec 4, 2022 / 08:00 am (CNA).

“Immaculate” is not a word most people would use to describe the Mississippi River’s famously muddy waters. But Father Jacques Marquette was not most people.

The Jesuit explorer, who came from France as a missionary to Canada in 1666, was one of the first Europeans to name the Mississippi, which he explored and mapped with his companion Louis Joliet beginning in 1673. And the name he gave to this vital artery of North America was “The River of the Immaculate Conception.”

The entrustment of this mighty waterway — one of the largest and most important rivers in the world — to the Virgin Mary was part of the French Jesuits’ mission to evangelize the Native Americans of the area, which by all accounts they did, not with violence but with fellowship and respect.

Father Jacques Marquette among the Native Americans. Wilhelm Lamprecht, 1869
Father Jacques Marquette among the Native Americans. Wilhelm Lamprecht, 1869

French missionary activity in North America was driven by great devotees to Mary, like Father Marquette, who had a vision of the meeting of two civilizations — European and Native American — under the Catholic faith, rather than a conquest of the land, said James Wilson, professor of humanities at St. Thomas University in Houston.

“They set out on their canoes entrusting themselves entirely to God’s grace, entrusting themselves entirely to Mary as the Immaculate Conception, and they didn’t seek to build lasting monuments to their conquests or to plant flags,” Wilson, author of a seven-part poem called “River of the Immaculate Conception,” noted.

“They sought primarily to enter as agents of grace among the Indians and to live with them, preach to them, and enter into communion with them.”

Of course, the Mississippi today bears its original, Native-given name, which roughly translates to “great waters.” But Wilson said far from being a footnote in history, Marquette’s consecration of the Mississippi endures as a testament to how God’s grace was already working in North America. Nearly two centuries later, in 1846, the bishops of the now United States declared Mary, under the title of the Immaculate Conception, as the patroness of the country.

The church on Immaculate Conception River

Though forgotten by most, the “River of the Immaculate Conception” endures in the memories of one community in particular: the congregation at the Immaculate Conception Chapel in Kaskaskia, Illinois. 

Immaculate Conception Chapel, Kaskaskia, Illinois. Diocese of Belleville
Immaculate Conception Chapel, Kaskaskia, Illinois. Diocese of Belleville

Kaskaskia was, at one time and in some ways, the center of the Mississippian universe. The now-tiny hamlet, located on the river, predates the historic riverside metropolises of New Orleans to the south and St. Louis to the north. Known at one time as the “Grand Village,” Kaskaskia was a prosperous nexus of trade for Natives and French trappers alike. The town of 1,900 people was the logical — and in some ways the definitive — place for Catholic missionaries to use as their evangelical hub. 

Emily Lyons, the historian at the Immaculate Conception Chapel in Kaskaskia, told CNA that the church’s founder, Marquette, had an “absolute devotion to the Immaculate Conception.” He entrusted anything and everything he could to Mary’s care.

Marquette founded the mission at Kaskaskia on Easter Sunday in 1675 and died later that year.

Since that time, the church dedicated to Mary in Kaskaskia has endured as a remarkable testament to God’s grace. Lyons said since the earliest days, when the church was a simple structure of upright logs, the congregation has “worn out about five different buildings.”

The island on which Kaskaskia sits is extremely prone to flooding, and the church has had to be moved several times over the years. The current brick church dates to 1894 and endured significant damage in the major Mississippi floods of 1993. The next year, the Diocese of Belleville designated it a chapel. Today, the once thriving village of Kaskaskia only has about two dozen residents.

Though no longer a parish, Immaculate Conception Chapel still attracts many visitors and worshippers. Lyons said every year on or around the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, the community has a celebratory Mass whereby they sing Marian hymns translated into the Algonquin language. The liturgy has attracted many Native American Catholics over the years, she said.

The congregants also hold a procession and reenact a purported miracle that occurred at the church many years ago, whereby a young Native woman found lilies growing near the church — despite the prohibitive winter cold — and brought them inside as an offering for Mary.

God’s grace in America

Unlike the Spanish, whose conquest of North America was often marked by brutality, the French entered with “relative peacefulness” and largely respected the humanity of the Natives, Wilson said. Many of the Natives were subsequently converted and incorporated Christianity into their way of life.

To meditate on this, Wilson says, is to reconceive of the United States not as a wild frontier later tamed by man but as “a stage where God’s grace is the first actor.” The French Jesuits, through their devotion to prayer and to the devout life, were attuned to this reality, Wilson said.

“To consecrate the Mississippi River as the ‘River of the Immaculate Conception’ is not to plant a flag or to lay conquest. It’s rather to recognize that this vast, open continent must, objectively speaking, be defined primarily not by what any human being does but by the actions of God through his grace,” Wilson said.

“Even when Christians try to talk about history, they talk as though only humans have acted in history and don’t consider that God is always the primary author of every action, and God's grace is the most dynamic agent of everything in history.”

The hidden message in ancient ‘O Antiphons’ of Advent

null / Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 4, 2022 / 07:00 am (CNA).

An emeritus Texas bishop is highlighting an Advent message hidden in the O Antiphons — prayers that are recited or chanted in an ancient tradition leading up to Christmas.

“Composed in the sixth or seventh century, the seven O Antiphons are drawn from the Book of the prophet Isaiah and the first letters of each antiphon form the Latin word SARCORE, which read backwards is ERO CRAS, which means ‘Tomorrow I come,’” Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer, OMI, bishop emeritus of San Angelo, wrote in a December statement.

Pfeifer, who served as the bishop of San Angelo from 1985 to 2013, listed the O Antiphons, which are said Dec. 17–23 during Vespers (the Evening Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours) and Masses. The first letters spell the message in an acrostic:

Dec. 17 — “O Sapientia”/“O Wisdom” (Isaiah 11:2-3; 28:29) 

Dec. 18 — “O Adonai”/“O Lord” (Isaiah 11:4-5; 33:22)

Dec. 19 — “O Radix Jesse”/“O Root of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1; 11:10) 

Dec. 20 — “O Clavis David”/“O Key of David” (Isaiah 9:6; 22:22) 

Dec. 21 — “O Oriens”/“O Dawn of the East” (Isaiah 9:2) 

Dec. 22 — “O Rex Gentiu”/“O King of the Gentiles” (Isaiah 2:4; 9:7) 

Dec. 23 — “O Emmanuel”/“God with Us” (Isaiah 7:14)

Together, these antiphons spell out “a hopeful message about the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, of Jesus as we prepare for his birthday each year on Dec. 25,” Pfeifer said.

He went on to explain why they end on Dec. 23.

“Traditionally feasts were said to begin on the eve of their celebration, so Christmas begins at sundown on Dec. 24,” he wrote.

The message in the antiphons holds true today, Pfeifer emphasized.

“Each Christmas Jesus fulfills the promise ‘I will come tomorrow’ by being born again as a tiny baby, the Godman, Jesus Christ,” he wrote. “We can make the following O Antiphons part of our Advent preparation for the birth of Christ by using them in our prayers or Advent scriptural readings.”

He added: “Then in gratitude and joy we celebrate the birth of our long-awaited savior, Jesus Christ — Christmas.”

The seven prayers accompany the Magnificat canticle, or the canticle of Mary, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The USCCB lists the text of the O Antiphons, each asking the Messiah to come and, together, spelling out his response in the acrostic.

“They are a magnificent theology that uses ancient biblical imagery drawn from the messianic hopes of the Old Testament to proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well,” the U.S. bishops say on their website.

Pfeifer shared other recommendations to help prepare for Christmas.

“My strong pastoral message for Advent each year is ‘don’t forget the baby!’” he told CNA.

“First, when we think of a gift, let us open our hearts to receive the gift the baby wants to be for us,” he said. “Then, before all other gifts, we find in our hearts the gift we want to give the baby on his birthday.”

The unlikely hero of India: St. Francis Xavier 

A 17th-century Japanese depiction of St. Francis Xavier, from the Kobe City Museum collection. / Public Domain.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 3, 2022 / 04:00 am (CNA).

How far would you go to serve God? 

Would you be willing to travel to the ends of the earth, with nothing but the guarantee of hardship, deprivation, and persecution? 

Today’s feast celebrates the life of St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries and missions, who led an unlikely life of adventure and heroism, full of unexpected twists and turns, taking the faith to the ends of the earth. 

Born in 1506 to a noble Navarrese-Basque family, Francis grew up in a land wracked with war. Wedged between the growing imperial powers of Castile-Aragon (Spain) and France, Navarre seldom knew peace during Francis’ childhood. 

As a member of the nobility, Francis was expected to lead a warrior’s life along with his father and brothers. 

But at the age of 10, Francis’ life took its first dramatic and tragic turn. His father died, his homeland Kingdom of Navarre was defeated by Spain, his brothers were imprisoned, and his childhood home, the Castle of the House of Javier (Xavier), was almost entirely destroyed. 

With his family disgraced and nearly wiped out, Francis’ prospects for a bright future were looking dim. But God still had incredible plans for young Francis. 

Hoping to rebuild the family’s legacy, Francis was sent in 1525 to the center of European theology and studies, the University of Paris.

In Paris, Francis quickly made a name for himself. Handsome with a keen intellect and an agile athlete with a particular gift for pole vaulting, the last thing on young Francis’ mind was a life of humble service to God and the Church. 

Yet Francis’ life took a second dramatic turn after he met a fellow Basque noble, Ignatius of Loyola. Headstrong and stubborn, Francis was initially repelled by Ignatius’ ideas of radical devotion to God. But Ignatius would remind him of Jesus’ words in the Bible: “For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

Inspired by Ignatius’ piety and fervor, Francis finally decided to dedicate his life to the service of God. In 1534, along with Ignatius and five others, Francis took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a chapel at Montmartre in France.

Receiving Holy Orders alongside Ignatius in 1537, Francis had intended to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But war in the region had made such a journey impossible. Once again, God was about to unexpectedly and radically alter the course of Francis’ life.

Pope Leo III asked the newly founded Jesuits to send missionaries to the Portuguese colonies in India. Though he was originally not supposed to go, one of the Jesuits assigned to the mission fell ill, and Francis volunteered in his place. Through that courageous act of trust, God would use Francis to transform the entire Asian continent.

Francis set out for India in 1541, on his 35th birthday. Traveling by sea at this time was extremely uncomfortable, and those who dared to do so risked disease with no guarantee of ever successfully arriving at their destination. Francis had to sail all the way around Africa, past the Cape of Good Hope, almost to the very bottom of the globe, just to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive in Goa, a province in India.

Upon arriving in India in 1542, Francis immediately faced countless challenges in bringing the word of God to the people of this new and strange region. For seven years Francis preached in the streets and public squares, laboring tirelessly across India and the Asian Pacific islands, contending with persecution from warlords and at times even from the Portuguese authorities meant to help him. 

After converting tens of thousands and planting the seeds of a renewed and lasting Christian Church in India, Francis began to hear stories about an enchanting island nation known as “Japan.” Francis’ heart was set ablaze with the desire to bring the Gospel to Japan. After he had ensured the faithful in India would be properly cared for, Francis set sail for the mysterious new land, becoming the first to bring the Christian faith to Japan, on the complete opposite side of the world from his home in Navarre. He was truly going to the ends of the earth in service of God. 

In Japan, Francis and his companions traveled far and wide, often on foot and with almost no resources. Crisscrossing the nation, he built up a vibrant Christian community over 6,000 miles from Rome. 

Francis would later hear of the even more mysterious and closely guarded nation of China and here, too, he decided to bring the word of God. But before he could find a way into China’s heartland, Francis got sick and died in 1552, while on the Chinese Shangchuan Island. 

Now considered one of the greatest of all the Church’s missionaries, St. Francis Xavier proved that one life lived in complete trust in God can transform an entire continent and the whole world. 

More clergy accused of child sexual abuse in California as important deadline nears

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Boston, Mass., Dec 2, 2022 / 17:15 pm (CNA).

As California’s three-year window to file child sex abuse lawsuits past the statute of limitations nears its conclusion, 66 Catholic clergy and religious have been named in 116 lawsuits in Alameda County, which covers the area between San Francisco and San Jose.

Additionally, 14 of the clergy members and religious identified in the lawsuits are named for the first time, the law firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates announced Nov. 28. 

The law firm said that the 116 lawsuits may be a small percentage of the total number of suits filed under the California Child Victims Act, which was passed in 2019.

The legislation allowed a three-year period in which victims of child sex abuse could come forward with claims that would have expired under the previous statute of limitations. The window began Jan. 1, 2020, and will expire in less than a month. The bill was signed by Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The legislation allows one to file a civil lawsuit for child sexual abuse up to the age of 40, or within five years from the date that the plaintiff “discovers or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness occurring” after the age of 18 was caused by the abuse.

Previously, claims had to be filed by age 26, or within three years of discovering damages from the abuse. Dec. 31 is the last day to file a lawsuit before the window closes.

“The California Child Victims Act has helped hundreds of survivors seek justice and healing,” attorney Jeff Anderson said in a statement. “This law is a major advancement in the child protection movement, and we applaud all of the survivors who have come forward. But time is running out. Survivors must act before the Dec. 31 deadline.”

Andy Rivas, the then executive director of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops, said at the the time the law, known as AB 218, passed that the Church viewed it as a “step forward."

“Ultimately, our hope is that all victim-survivors of childhood sexual abuse in all institutional settings will be able to have their pain and suffering addressed and resolved and so our prayers are that AB 218 will be a step forward in that direction,” Rivas said.

“The Catholic Church has confronted this issue of child sexual abuse for more than two decades now,” he said. “It is a legacy of shame for all of us in the Church, and we are aware that nothing can undo the violence done to victim-survivors or restore the innocence and trust that was taken from them.”

According to the law firm, the lawsuits allege that the abuse occurred within the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the Archdiocese of San Francisco, the Diocese of Fresno, the Diocese of Monterey, the Diocese of Oakland, the Diocese of Sacramento, the Diocese of San Jose, and the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

Brother Salvatore Billante and Father Stephen Kiesle were accused most frequently, according to the law firm. Billante was accused at least 11 times and Kiesle was accused at least nine times, the law firm said. Billante’s alleged abuse took place at locations in the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Kiesle’s alleged abuse took place at locations in the Diocese of Oakland.

Fourteen of the allegations named clergy members for the first time. Their names, reported by the law firm, are Father James Corley, Father Sidney Hall, Father John A. Lynch, Father John Francis Scanlon, Father William Dodson, Father Henry Hall, Sister M. Rosella McConnell, Father Joseph Watt, Father Elwood Geary, Father Domingos S. Jacque, Brother U Benedict Reams, Father Robert Gemmet, Father Robert H. Lewis, and Father Christian Sandholdt.

It’s unclear whether the 66 accused clergy and religious are living or deceased, and where they are living, the law firm said. The names of the 66 accused clergy and religious can be seen here.

“The vast majority of claims against these individuals have not been fully evaluated in a civil or criminal court,” the law firm said. 

“The allegations should not be considered proven or substantiated in a court of law. All individuals should be considered innocent until proven guilty.”

Several other states, such as New York, New Jersey, Louisiana, Arizona, Montana, Hawaii, Vermont, and North Carolina have also passed legislation opening windows for lawsuits past the statute of limitations. 

Vermont to allow religious schools to use state assistance after settling lawsuit

null / Stephen Kiers/Shutterstock

St. Louis, Mo., Dec 2, 2022 / 16:15 pm (CNA).

Religious private schools in Vermont will now be allowed to make use of a state tuition assistance program that previously excluded them, after the state settled two lawsuits on the matter Nov. 30.

Vermont’s Town Tuition Program provides tuition benefits for students who live in towns without public schools, and it previously allowed payments to secular private schools but not religious ones. As part of the settlements, state and local government officials agreed that Vermont’s exclusion of religious private schools from the program is unconstitutional and unenforceable.

The Diocese of Burlington, which includes the entire state and serves some 2,300 students at 13 schools, was party to both lawsuits, as were several private-school families.

“We are glad that our schools will finally be included along with the other private and public schools as a choice for students that do not have a school in their town,” Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington said in a statement to CNA.

The lawsuits were filed by attorneys for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Christian legal group. Thomas McCormick, a longtime Vermont lawyer who works with the ADF Attorney Network, is serving as local counsel on behalf of the families and the Diocese of Burlington.

On Wednesday, the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont entered a stipulated judgment enforcing the settlement agreement. Under the settlements, the plaintiff families who requested tuition but were wrongly denied by their school districts will be reimbursed for the tuition they paid out of pocket, ADF stated. The school districts will reimburse the plaintiff families directly; other families will have the opportunity to request reimbursement from the school districts. The state of Vermont and the school districts will also pay the families’ attorney fees, ADF said.

Vermont’s school choice program dates to 1869. The state has barred religious schools from the program since 1999, following a state Supreme Court ruling that held that public funds may not be used to "support any place of worship” under Vermont’s constitution. The lawsuits against the state were filed more than two decades later, in 2020.

The settlements in the present cases come in light of a landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in June in the case Carson v. Makin. In that decision, the court ruled 6-3 that Maine’s policy barring students in a student-aid program from using their aid to attend “sectarian” schools violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

In that decision, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that having chosen to fund private schools through its aid program, Maine cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious. The state “pays tuition for certain students at private schools — so long as the schools are not religious. That is discrimination against religion. A state’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.”

Other recent cases before the Supreme Court have led to favorable results for advocates of school choice. In its June 2020 decision Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court struck down as a violation of the free exercise clause a state scholarship program that excluded religious schools. And in 2017, the court found in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer that a church-owned playground can be eligible for a public benefit program.

Meet Lorie Smith, the Christian artist with a Supreme Court free speech case

Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative / Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 2, 2022 / 15:45 pm (CNA).

Ever since she was a young girl, Lorie Smith has loved weddings. Now, as an artist with her own studio, she says she wants to help others celebrate their big day. But she feels like she can’t — because she is a Christian who believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in her case303 Creative LLC v. Elenis — on Monday, Dec. 5.

The 38-year-old graphic artist and website designer from the Denver metro area is challenging Colorado’s anti-discrimination law that she says would compel her to use her artistic talents, or speech, to create messages celebrating same-sex weddings. At the same time, Colorado argues that the case is one about discrimination: If someone sells a product in the public sphere, he or she has to sell it to all people.

For her part, Smith stressed that she creates for everyone with her company, 303 Creative.

“I serve everyone, including those who identify as LGBT,” she told CNA. “I love to custom create and will work with anyone — there are simply some messages I can’t create regardless of who asks me.”

Her case, she said, is about freedom of speech for all artists.

“I want the LGBT graphic designer to be free to create consistent with her beliefs, and the Democrat speechwriter and the atheist photographer,” she said. “A win in my case is truly a win for all Americans.”

Represented by faith-based legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Smith is challenging Colorado officials, including Aubrey Elenis, the director of the Colorado Civil Rights Division. The case centers on the question of “whether applying a public-accommodation law to compel an artist to speak or stay silent violates the free speech clause of the First Amendment.”

Right now, Smith said that she is compelled.

“After I started my own design studio, I wanted to expand my portfolio to custom create art and websites to tell stories about weddings, but Colorado made it clear I wasn’t welcome in that space,” she said. “Colorado officials are censoring my speech and forcing me to speak messages about marriage that are inconsistent with my beliefs — the core of who I am.”

She added: “Not wanting to be punished for saying what I believe, I had no choice but to challenge this unjust law.”

Smith is optimistic that the Supreme Court justices will agree with her.

“I love to design art — every word I write, every graphic I design, and every website I craft expresses a unique and custom message,” she said. “I’m hopeful that the Supreme Court will ensure that the government can’t force myself or anyone to say something they don’t believe.”

While Smith considers her creative skills a gift to glorify God, she revealed that she was not always a Christian.

“My faith journey began after I lost my uncle, who was like a father to me, to a tragic accident,” she said. “I couldn’t understand why bad things could happen to good people, so I set out on a journey to try to disprove the existence of God.”

Instead, she said, she found God.

“I attended church regularly to equip my arsenal of evidence against him,” she said. “But God had other plans, and it was through this process that he brought me to faith, and that changed my entire life. Now, everything I do or say and how I love other people, I do for his glory.”

According to Smith, her case has only drawn her closer to God.

“As I’ve navigated the highs and lows of the past six years of litigation, including death threats, hate mail, and even having my home address posted on social media, I have grown much in my faith,” she said.

“I know that my stand for free speech is for everyone, regardless of who they are or how they identify,” she added. “I know my stand will protect even those who disagree with me or who say uncharitable things about me. I know the freedom of speech is worthy of protecting and I want all Americans — and the next generation — to be able to enjoy this incredible freedom.”

She concluded: “My faith has inspired me to continue to stand for this important truth.”

Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative. Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom
Lorie Smith, owner and founder of 303 Creative. Credit: Alliance Defending Freedom

Jake Warner, senior counsel for ADF, explained how Smith’s art translates into speech.

“She creates words, pictures, and graphics. And all of those things are what the Supreme Court calls ‘pure speech’ because they express a message,” he said, adding that Colorado has conceded the same about Smith’s work.

Rather than having one product to sell to all, Smith’s creations are tailored to her every client, he said. Every website or graphic is custom-made, with different names, pictures, and details.

This is not the first time ADF has represented a Coloradan Christian artist at the Supreme Court. In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, after he refused to create a cake for a same-sex wedding. With that case, Warner said the court ruled that Colorado had discriminated against Phillips and that his free exercise rights were violated.

“It didn’t reach the free speech issue raised in that case, which is the one that the 303 case, or that Lorie Smith’s case, raises now,” he said. “Can the government force an artist to express a message that goes against their deeply-held beliefs?”