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

Breaking News / CNA

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 AR14 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. 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.

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. 

Advent Wind

My parents are avid gardeners. When I visit, they proudly show me the miraculous growth of plants that started off as small clippings. In their Inland Empire suburban backyard, among the many florals, topicals, herbs and shrubs, you’ll find a lemon tree that seems to bear fruit year-round, surrounded by sugar canes and a guava tree whose branches became so heavy with fragrant fruit this past year that my father had to prop them up with planks to keep them from breaking. Things change every fall, though, with the coming of the Santa Ana winds. The Santa Anas were still blowing when I visited last weekend, not quite as bad as the seventy mile-per-hour gusts of the previous week, which had destroyed much of the backyard garden. My parents lamented the loss. In Fontana, just  seven miles from their home, a wind-fueled fire that began at a pallet yard spread to homes and cars; it was just one of the many blazes the Santa Anas sparked in Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino Counties.

The Santa Anas highlight wind’s destructive potential. But wind has also historically been seen by humans as a creative force. For example, in the Aztec creation mythology, the deity, Ehécatl—god of air and wind, of creative and destructive wind, and of the breath of life—was a manifestation of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent that helped create humanity. In the first of two creation stories in the first chapter of the book of Genesis, the breath of God blows across the waters as God creates. In the second creation story, in chapter two,  God blows or breathes (depending on the translation) the breath of life into humanity’s nostrils.

Though my parents bemoaned the mess the Santa Anas had made of their garden, my father consoled himself by saying, “At least the air will be clean for a while.” In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, John the Baptist at the Jordan River warns the Pharisees and Sadducees that: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12). Wind separates wheat from chaff. Though Matthew 3:12 is an apocalyptic warning of the final judgment to Pharisees and Sadducees, the imagery of the wheat and chaff can also help us reflect on the need to discern what is (or is not) serving us or leading us to an authentic life. If the Lord’s winnowing fan is in His hands, then may the divine wind separate what is life-giving and what is not within me.

If the Lord’s winnowing fan is in His hands, then may the divine wind separate what is life-giving and what is not within me.

The images of wind, water, and fire in this Sunday’s Advent Gospel reading invite us to consider what needs cleansing, purifying, separating. Advent is a time of discernment. It is an individual and collective opportunity to be open to the winds of change that offer us a new beginning. Advent is an invitation to believe in the creative, life-giving power of God. The creative breath of God is constant and so change within us is always possible.

The Santa Ana Winds are not as strong where I live in Los Angeles, but I always think about them come fall… and come Advent. I actually have a fond memory of them as a child growing up in Fontana. On the school playground we would hold open our puffer jackets like wings, then slowly lean, lowering our small bodies against the wind, trusting that it would sustain our weight. It felt like floating. If the gusts picked up or let down suddenly, one of us might be tossed to the ground. I don’t recall ever falling like some of my friends but to this day I can close my eyes and hear the whirling, whistling sound of the wind, feel my long-tousled hair hitting my face. I can feel my arms wide open holding the edges of my jacket taught and the pressure of the wind at my back letting myself go as if in a trust fall.

When I rest in this childhood memory, I’m invited to trust in divine power, a power that can sustain the weight of my whole being. I’m invited to let myself be winnowed, and to let some aspects of myself go. I’m called to not be afraid of the death the wind might bring because with it comes a new creation. It brings clear skies and a breath of clean, fresh air.

As It Was in the Beginning

As the bishop’s role has grown in stature through the centuries, with bishops becoming the ultimate arbiter of things doctrinal and canonical, the way we elect bishops has changed and evolved. The participation of the laity in the electoral process has waned. In his late fourth-century treatise On the Priesthood, St. John Chrysostom was already lamenting how bishops were promoted:

Tell me, then, where do you think these great disturbances in the church come from? Personally, I think that they transpire from the ill-considered and random manner in which bishops are chosen. (Book III, 10)

The upcoming election of a new archbishop for the ancient Church of Cyprus is an opportunity to reflect on the role of the laity in selecting candidates for elevation or ordination in the Orthodox Church—especially (but not only) elevation to the highest level of the priesthood.

In Cyprus, metropolitans and bishops aspiring to the vacant throne of the archbishop have publicly declared their candidacy. Over the next few weeks, a course of action established by the Church’s charter will be set into motion. All resident baptized Orthodox Christians will be invited to choose from a list of candidates. The three names with the most votes will then be submitted to the Holy Synod, which will then elect its new presiding primate. The first part of this process has become a full-fledged campaign, complete with polls and plots, use of social media, and conspiracy theories about “stolen” votes and consternation about “fraudulent” elections.

The Church of Cyprus is the last of the Orthodox Churches to continue the apostolic practice of episcopal election through popular vote and synodal confirmation. The rest of the Orthodox Churches have, conveniently and complacently, switched to electing their bishops behind closed doors. These other Churches will doubtless remain silent about the election process in the Church of Cyprus, which was founded by St. Barnabas. They will no doubt say that they wish to refrain from interference in the decisions of self-governed Churches. But I wonder whether their silence actually indicates an aversion to including the “public”—that is, the laity—in what they consider their own private affairs.

The upcoming election of a new archbishop for the ancient Church of Cyprus is an opportunity to reflect on the role of the laity in selecting candidates for elevation or ordination in the Orthodox Church.

In debates about the involvement of the laity in synods that define Church teachings or policies on contemporary social challenges, Orthodox bishops often complain that lay involvement smacks of democracy or protestantism. And in contemplating the possible advantages and disadvantages of engaging the masses in the election of a new archbishop, both ordained bishops and professional theologians are prone to mistrust the results.

Should it be a matter of concern that democracy is routinely depreciated by those wishing to protect the hierarchy? Should we be troubled that they tend to describe the Church as standing against the “world”? Should we be skeptical of a synod that is reflexively suspicious of society at large? “The people don’t always choose the best candidate,” I am told. But does a conclave behind closed doors always choose the best candidate? What, exactly, are we afraid of when it comes to democracy or “the world” or “the public”? And what is the point of the laity shouting “Axios!” (“Worthy!”) at the end of an ordination if they don’t know anything about their new bishop?

Instead of considering the involvement of the laity in terms of a competition for power and status, it might be helpful to think of the election process in the context of communion. There is, after all, a sacramental, even a eucharistic dimension to the election of an archbishop. Just as we could never conceive of the liturgy (which means “a labor of the people”) as solely clerical or exclusively priestly, so too the election of a presiding hierarch integrates the two essential components of the Church—clergy and laity—into a living organism with body and soul. There can be no eucharistic celebration without the laity, no Church fullness without the laity, and so there should be no episcopal election without the laity.

Transparency is always a challenge in the Church. Not because bishops don’t comprehend its importance or relevance in the modern era, but precisely because they recognize its ramifications for a medieval system in the modern world. That’s why invocations of “tradition” are brought into full force against anyone who dares to question established practice, with those in authority casting indiscriminate aspersions on “liberalism,” “modernism,” and “secularism.”

Should it be a matter of concern that democracy is routinely depreciated by those wishing to protect the hierarchy?

What is particularly surprising to me about the process unfolding in Cyprus is how blunt the candidates have been in advertising their qualifications and platforms. This certainly seems unusual for an institution like the Church, which is normally so shielded by seclusion and secrecy. But does that make it wrong? Should it perhaps be considered a feasible model for imitation, as long as there are appropriate ground rules? Wouldn’t it be preferable to hierarchs promoting “their own” without consultation or collaboration from the rest of the church—the so-called “plenitude”?

Let me share a personal anecdote here. A while ago, a bishop called to inform me of his interest in pursuing the leadership of a vacated diocese. Despite the assurance of St. Paul, that “anyone aspiring to the office of bishop desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 1:1), I was initially scandalized that someone would so brazenly pursue an episcopal throne. Was I so naïve as to believe that the Holy Spirit alone determined such sacred decisions? In any case, why would the Holy Spirit not tolerate being embroiled in such all-too-human aspirations? Could it be that this openly ambitious man was more honest than other candidates who might feign disinterest or detachment while quietly angling for preferment?

I would argue that it might be more honest and honorable if candidates for ordination—especially in the case of bishops or metropolitans, and certainly in the case of archbishops or patriarchs—were subject to public scrutiny. Would it not be beneficial for everyone to learn where such candidates stood on fundamental issues, such as science and technology, war and peace, politics and economy? After all, if the selection process is deliberately hidden from the community, problems will most likely reveal themselves only after the fact, to the greater detriment of the Church. In any case, the ultimate decisions would still belong to the bishops, but the laity would not be systematically excluded from the process.

Perhaps the acclamation “Axios!” will again become what it once was: a stamp of popular approval rather than the cheer of passive adulation it has sadly become. I know it’s just a dream for now, but we can at least imagine. It beats waiting for incense to rise from synod meetings.

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

null / Shutterstock

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?”

Are We Protagonists Yet?


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Whenever I read a Vatican statement on the role of women, I conduct a thought experiment. I imagine that I know nothing whatsoever about the Roman Catholic Church or its faithful. If this document were my only source of information, I ask from behind my ecclesial veil of ignorance, what basic conclusions might I draw about women in the Church? I’ve done this mental exercise with dozens of texts over the years, and one conclusion surfaces over and over: women are all exactly the same.

It’s a rather astounding conclusion to draw about a tradition populated all the way down by women who lived and died in wild and unique ways—shaving heads, chronicling visions, leading armies, renouncing fortunes, forswearing marriage, and birthing God, to name a few highlights. Yet there is little in Church teaching on women that does not appear to proceed from a fundamental illusion that women—the billions of us—constitute some sort of monolithic, quasi-theoretical body with an articulable essence, singular vocation, and narrow set of essentialized gifts. A sociologist attempting to devise a typology of women in the Church based on magisterial writing would, in the end, not find much to differentiate in the single category of “women.” This is the governing imagination behind Pope John Paul II’s notion of the “feminine genius.” But it also shapes, if less obdurately, Pope Francis’s comments on women, though one can trace real evolution since his early pontificate. In any case, the result is exaltation through condescension. Even the most well-intentioned statements on women in the Church bear the unmistakable hint of the male CEO who calls his female secretary “the real boss” and sincerely believes it’s a compliment.

On October 27, the Vatican issued the Working Document for the Continental Stage (DCS) of the ongoing Synod on Synodality. Prepared over two weeks by an international group of laypeople, religious, and clergy under the direction of the general secretariat of the synod, the document synthesizes hundreds of reports from the synod’s consultative phase—local reports from nearly every bishops’ conference as well as lay associations, religious superiors, dicasteries, online communities, and individuals and groups throughout the world. The DCS is not a declaration of conclusions but a sort of working snapshot of the polyvocal sensus fidei, meant to be used as a source for the synod’s next phase. Its release was met with fascination, even emotion, because it concretized what, until this point, has felt to some like a nebulous process. The document’s tone is forthright, warm, and non-defensive. As I read it, I imagined the committee responsible for its creation offering it to the Church on open palms.

When I reached the subsection of the DCS titled “Rethinking women’s participation,” I conducted my usual thought experiment. And for the first time, I was surprised.

The document suggests a sense among the faithful that the status quo not only represents a problem for women but, fundamentally, for the mission of the Church.

The synod is an exercise in ecclesial listening. Synodal listening is not, the document clarifies, merely an “instrumental action,” a wildly complicated multi-year public opinion survey. To listen is to emulate God’s own fundamental disposition toward God’s people. When it comes to the status of women in the Church, we will know that such listening has been genuine if its fruits, whatever they may be, shatter the intractable pattern of speaking about women as though what can be said of one can be said of all. For this reason, I found myself heartened by the DCS, both for the universality of its call to rethink women’s participation in the Church and for the multiplicity of voices and perspectives represented therein. The section on women begins in a striking way: “The call for a conversion of the Church’s culture, for the salvation of the world, is linked in concrete terms to the possibility of establishing a new culture, with new practices and structures. A critical and urgent area in this regard concerns the role of women and their vocation, rooted in our common baptismal dignity, to participate fully in the life of the Church.” The document refers to the “vocation” of women in the singular. But here, the vocation in question is the call to full participation in the life of the Church, the fulfillment of our common baptism. By locating the need to reconsider women’s roles within a deeper and broader call for ecclesial conversion, the document suggests a sense among the faithful that the status quo not only represents a problem for women but, fundamentally, for the mission of the Church.

Conversion begins in confession, and the DCS’s paragraphs on women tell some uncomfortable truths. Among the most striking excerpts is one from the Holy Land report: “Those who were most committed to the synod process were women, who seem to have realized not only that they had more to gain, but also more to offer by being relegated to a prophetic edge, from which they observe what happens in the life of the Church.” The line stunned me the first time I read it—not because it contained a new or radical sentiment, but because it was included in a document of this kind at all. It gives the lie to sentimental glorifications of the place that women occupy in the Church. Women don’t offer unique insight because of our natural humility or our maternal capacity for caregiving, but because the “prophetic edges” are the only ground from which we can speak. The report from the Superiors of Institutes of Consecrated Life is even more stark in its assessment of the discrimination faced by women religious. Prevalent “sexism in decision-making and Church language” leads to the exclusion of women “from meaningful roles in the life of the Church,” their report states. It indicts the treatment of women religious as “cheap labor,” and decries the tendency to “entrust ecclesial functions to permanent deacons” rather than allowing women to share in responsibility for ecclesial communities. What will come of these risky acts of honesty is not clear. At this stage, however, there is an accountability to history that comes from committing these reports to print.

If the synodal process comes to represent the dawn of a new epoch for women in the Church, it will be because it marks an intervention in an ecclesial culture in which men are its normative “protagonists.”

Crucially, the document reports, the call to rethink women’s participation “is registered all over the world.” Calls for women’s leadership in the Church are frequently miscast as a myopic concern of the West. Not infrequently, the global nature of the Church is cited as reason enough to downplay the urgency of such discussions: the role of women may be a concern to Catholics in the United States, the line goes, but this simply isn’t what Catholics in Asia or South America are talking about. As it turns out, the status of women is very much what Catholics in Asia and South America are talking about. “Almost all reports raise the issue of full and equal participation of women,” the DCS states. Its six paragraphs on women weave together voices from three continents, the Union of Superiors General, and the International Union of Superiors General. Nothing would have been more suspicious than the impression of consensus, and the document wisely avoids attempts to reconcile or over-interpret contrasting views on issues like the ordination of women. It names these differences and allows them simply to stand, returning them to the People of God for the next phase of conversation.

Pope Francis recently announced the extension of the synod through October 2024, a year longer than initially planned. By giving the process more time, he hopes to welcome greater participation and allow the work of discernment to unfold at a more deliberate pace. Having reached the synod’s halfway mark, it’s worth looking to the past and future. Karl Rahner famously characterized the Second Vatican Council as representing the dawn of a new epoch in Church history, the Church’s self-realization as a “world Church.” The council was unprecedented in its global and ecumenical scope, and the conciliar process shattered the illusion that a European-looking, Latin-speaking Church could rightly call itself universal. In order to rediscover itself as a “world Church,” the Church had to come to terms with how thoroughly its notions of sanctity and divinity had been conditioned by the normative status of European culture, aesthetics, language, music, art, and bodies.

Similarly, if the synodal process comes to represent the dawn of a new epoch for women in the Church, it will be because it marks an intervention in an ecclesial culture in which men are, to use the language of the synod, its normative “protagonists.” “Women want the Church to be their ally,” the document reports. We might proceed by posing the opposite question: Does the Church want women to be its ally? What would it mean for women to be recognized as protagonists in the Church, as full subjects, diverse in every respect, with the agency to respond in freedom and creativity to the call of the Gospel? As the next stage of synodal listening proceeds, this is the question I’ll be asking.