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‘These are very hard times’: Pastor of Gaza Catholic church gives update on Christians’ plight

Father Gabriel Romanelli (center), the Latin parish priest of Gaza, is among the celebrants at a Mass to celebrate the feast day of Our Lady, Queen of Palestine and the Holy Land at the shrine dedicated to her at Deir Rafat on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023. / Credit: Marinella Bandini

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 6, 2023 / 15:40 pm (CNA).

Father Gabriel Romanelli, the pastor of Holy Family Parish, the only Roman Catholic church in Gaza, gave an update Dec. 1 on the plight of the Christians in northern Gaza as the Israeli-Hamas war continues and spoke about the significance of Gaza to Christianity in the Holy Land.

Since the conflict began, hundreds of Christians and other Gazan civilians have taken refuge in the parish, which is on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.

Romanelli, who is an Argentine priest of the Institute of the Incarnate Word and has served at the Gaza parish for over six years, shared his message during a Dec. 1 interview with Father Ibrahim Nino, director of the media office at the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem. 

The full interview, which is in Arabic, is available on the patriarchate’s YouTube channel here.

Romanelli said that though there is “great shock and sadness” among the Christians of Gaza, “they have great trust in God’s divine protection.” 

As the war broke out in Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians, Romanelli said that many people did not know where to go and the Christian community decided to stay, seeking refuge in the parish.

“It was dangerous as bombings were taking place both north and south. They chose to remain where they were, trusting in Jesus, so they truly felt the presence of God.”

Though a small minority in Gaza, the Christian community has been greatly impacted by the war.

On Oct. 23 an Orthodox church neighboring Holy Family Parish was struck by Israeli missiles, resulting in the deaths of 18 people. After the bombing, many more sought refuge in Holy Family Parish. The church is currently sheltering more than 600 people, according to Romanelli.

He said that many in the local community have lost homes and loved ones. Though he was outside Gaza when the war began and has been unable to return, he has kept in constant contact with his flock. 

“These are very hard times,” Romanelli said. “Even if they have strong faith, they remain humans and sadness is normal to be experienced; even Our Lord Jesus Christ, God incarnate, wept.”

He thanked both Pope Francis and the head of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, for their prayers and spiritual closeness to the Church in Gaza. Romanelli shared that during the early days of the conflict, Francis would call him each day.

“The pope called us daily to check on us, despite his also big responsibilities and duties for the Church. And through a simple phone call, he gave us his blessing.”

Despite the suffering, Romanelli said that the faith of the Roman Catholic community in Gaza, which numbers about 135 and includes several priests and religious, has only strengthened.

“The big yearly activities that we are used to holding in our parish and schools will not take place this year,” he said. “But we started to think spiritually … the birth of Jesus is at the center of our celebrations … To hold different spiritual activities for the parishioners to help prepare spiritually for Jesus to be born in our hearts and lives by cleansing the grotto of our hearts and experience the simplicity of a grotto.”

Though the Catholic community in Gaza is small, Romanelli says it is very active and devout. The parish holds two Masses daily, a daily rosary, regular Eucharistic adoration, and hosts multiple ministries for men, women, and children to grow in faith.

According to Romanelli, the Catholic church there also runs three of the five Christian schools in Gaza, which serve both Christian and Muslim students, as well as ministries for the sick and injured.

Even though the war has heavily impacted the community, Romanelli said that many of the parish’s ministries have gone on and the sacraments continue to be offered.

“In regard to the spiritual life, despite all the things we lack, it is still a beautiful, rich, and important life in the parish,” he said. “We try to be one, not only assisting the Christians but also the Muslims [and] to anyone who comes to Gaza, allow them to experience the special presence of the Lord.”

Preserving the presence of Christ in Gaza

Romanelli said that tradition holds that the Holy Family passed through Gaza as they were fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath and that they passed through again on their way to Nazareth.

Thus, Romanelli said that Holy Family Parish in Gaza has three missions: first, to foster and preserve the presence of Jesus Christ in the area; second, to care for the spiritual life of the people; and third, to testify to the love of Jesus to all.

Now, as hundreds gather at the parish seeking shelter and spiritual solace and the Advent and Christmas seasons commence, Romanelli said that the parish’s mission is especially important.

Romanelli shared an Advent message, addressing Christians not only in Gaza but also throughout the world. He said “we need to return to the pillars of our faith, to read and meditate on the word of God, attend adoration and go to confession.”

He encouraged Christians worldwide to seek out the sacraments and spend time with Christ in the Eucharist this Advent and Christmas season. He also encouraged Christians to make spiritual acts of mercy by visiting and caring for the lonely, sick, and poor.

Romanelli especially encouraged Christians to turn to confession this Advent season. As missiles continue to strike around them, Romanelli said the Christians in Gaza remain focused not on those who can kill the body but instead on what can kill the soul.

“We tend to forget that we need a spiritual healing, we forget that we can die spiritually, but there is a solution for everything, and it’s through confession and repentance,” he said. “In sum, we should renew our spiritual life through confession, penance, and repentance.”

Theodore McCarrick case in Wisconsin hangs in the balance after new competency exam

Former cardinal Theodore McCarrick outside the Dedham District Court in Massachusetts on Sept. 3, 2021. / Credit: Joe Bukuras/CNA

CNA Staff, Dec 6, 2023 / 14:45 pm (CNA).

Just months after former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was ruled not competent to stand trial on criminal sexual abuse charges in Massachusetts, similar charges against him in Wisconsin now hang in the balance after a competency exam ordered by the court was filed in November.

McCarrick is facing misdemeanor sexual assault charges in Wisconsin related to an incident that allegedly occurred in April 1977 near a house by Geneva Lake. The complaint alleges that McCarrick and “another adult male” sexually assaulted then-18-year-old James Grein, the same man who brought a complaint against the former cardinal in Massachusetts.

Grein, 65, told CNA Monday that the other adult male who he alleges assaulted him was Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the late archbishop of Chicago who died in 1996.

Grein first brought allegations against McCarrick in 2018 in an interview with the New York Times, which referred to him only by his first name. He told the newspaper that McCarrick had serially sexually abused him beginning when he was 11.

If the Wisconsin case is dismissed, McCarrick still faces civil suits against him, but it could mean avoiding criminal penalties once and for all. McCarrick held offices at the highest levels of the Catholic Church and was removed from the clerical state in 2019 following several accusations of sexual abuse of minors and seminarians.

Grein told CNA Monday that he’s “tired” of McCarrick’s “hiding” and wants to hear him speak in court because he wants to try to determine for himself if McCarrick is being duplicitous per his mental health.

“I need to hear him speak because I need to hear his voice different from the voice that I know that he has.”

James Grein speaks at the Silence Stops Now rally in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. Credit: Christine Rousselle/CNA
James Grein speaks at the Silence Stops Now rally in Baltimore on Nov. 13, 2018. Credit: Christine Rousselle/CNA

The results of the competency exam are not yet available to the public and lawyers in the case could not comment on its contents.

The next hearing is on Jan. 10, 2024, at the Walworth County Judicial Center. McCarrick’s attorney, Jerome Buting, told CNA he believes the court will “make a finding” and reveal the exam’s results.

Notably, Kerry Nelligan, the psychologist who conducted the competency exam for the Wisconsin court, is the same expert who conducted a mental health exam on him earlier this year in the Massachusetts case.

In the first report, she found that McCarrick “is suffering from an organic process of cognitive decline” that will not improve.

The Massachusetts case was dismissed on Aug. 30 based on two separate psychological evaluations, one done in December 2022 for McCarrick’s defense team and the other in June, conducted by Nelligan, the psychologist hired by the prosecution. 

Both assessments concluded that the disgraced former archbishop of Washington, D.C., is too cognitively impaired to actively participate in his defense.

Online court records from the Wisconsin case reveal that the prosecution is “not contesting the report but believes [McCarrick] needs to be present for court to have colloquy regarding results.”

Colloquy refers to the discussion at a hearing between the judge and the defendant to make sure the defendant understands the proceedings.

Buting said that McCarrick can’t travel “due to physical and mental issues” and will try to set up a video or phone call to allow McCarrick to appear in court. The attorney said, however, that he “is not confident defendant will be able to do that,” the court record says.

McCarrick’s defense in the Wisconsin case raised the issue of competency in earlier court proceedings citing the psychological evaluations from the Massachusetts case, Walworth County District Attorney Zeke Wiedenfeld told CNA in September.

The state of Wisconsin originally objected to Nelligan’s appointment. But McCarrick’s defense asked the court to appoint her as the examiner because they said it would be “more efficient,” Wiedenfeld said at the time.

The court can choose its own examiner and that sometimes happens in cases where a psychologist “has a history in evaluating a person,” he said.

The Wisconsin allegations 

The Wisconsin complaint alleges the assault took place in April 1977 in the water at a Geneva Lake residence, located in Walworth County in southern Wisconsin. 

McCarrick was still a priest with the honorary title of monsignor at the time. He was ordained auxiliary bishop of New York just a couple of months later.

Bernardin, who was serving as the archbishop of Cincinnati in 1977, was raised to the status of cardinal about six years later. 

According to the complaint, “[Grein] stated that [he] was in the water off of the dock at the residence when the defendant and another adult male entered the water. [Grein] stated that the defendant and the other adult male fondled [Grein’s] penis without his consent and the defendant and the other adult male discussed [Grein’s] penis while they were in the water.”

Bernardin was an influential figure in the Catholic Church in the United States, becoming a bishop in his 30s and serving as the general secretary of the NCCB/USCC (today known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops).

According to the Illinois attorney general’s clergy sexual abuse report on the Archdiocese of Chicago, released in 2023, Bernadin created a majority laity diocesan review board that was a “significant step forward in addressing child sex abuse by clerics.”

The report said that Bernardin followed the recommendations of a clergy sexual abuse commission that he created in 1992. “As a result, the archdiocese found itself a leader in a new era of handling abuse claims,” the report said.

The U.S. bishops’ conference also honored Bernardin by naming “The Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award,” after him. The award is an initiative under the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which recognizes the leadership of young people in working with the poor.

The criminal complaint also states that McCarrick had sexually assaulted Grein prior to the incident “numerous times” and that McCarrick was “the holy man” for Grein’s family.

In addition to the sexual abuse that began when Grein was 11, the complaint said Grein listed “several incidents” that occurred in other states when he was a minor, which included Grein being sexually abused at “a special event or lavish party.”

“[Grein] also described a time where the defendant took [him] to an event where several adult males had sexual intercourse with [Grein],” the complaint says.

The complaint also says that Grein alleged McCarrick had nonconsensual sexual intercourse with him in Chicago the day before the Geneva Lake incident. 

Former Speaker McCarthy says he’s leaving Congress at end of year

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Kevin McCarthy. / Credit: Shutterstock

CNA Staff, Dec 6, 2023 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

Former Speaker of the House Rep. Kevin McCarthy revealed on Wednesday that he would be departing Congress at the end of the year, barely two months after he was ousted from the leadership position in the House of Representatives. 

The California Republican said in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal that he had “decided to depart the House at the end of this year to serve America in new ways.” 

“I know my work is only getting started,” McCarthy wrote. 

The former House leader did not give a reason for his departure in the op-ed. 

“I never could have imagined the journey when I first threw my hat into the ring,” he wrote. “I go knowing I left it all on the field — as always, with a smile on my face.”

McCarthy on Oct. 3 was removed from the speakership position in a 216-21 vote, becoming the first speaker in congressional history to be removed during a legislative session of Congress. 

The ouster came after several of McCarthy’s fellow Republicans in the House opposed his decision to negotiate with Democrats to prevent a government shutdown. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz originally proposed McCarthy’s ouster, accusing him of entering into a “secret side deal” with President Joe Biden to continue funding the war in Ukraine. He was joined by House Democrats and several Republicans in voting the speaker out.

Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson was subsequently elected to the speaker’s role Oct. 25.

In his op-ed on Wednesday, McCarthy indicated he would remain active in politics, stating that he “will continue to recruit our country’s best and brightest to run for elected office.”

“The Republican Party is expanding every day, and I am committed to lending my experience to support the next generation of leaders,” he said.

McCarthy was first elected to Congress in 2006.

Cardinal Fernández: Offer yourselves to the Lord ‘like clay ready to be molded’

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández celebrates his Mass of titular possession at the Church of Sts. Urban and Lawrence at Prima Porta on the northern outskirts of Rome on Dec. 3, 2023. / Credit: Elizabeth Alva/EWTN

Rome Newsroom, Dec 6, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).

The new head of the Vatican’s doctrine office gave a homily in the suburbs of Rome this week in which he encouraged Catholics not to be like “hard stones” unwilling to change but to be like clay, ready to be transformed by the Lord.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, took possession of his titular church on Dec. 3 on the northern outskirts of Rome, the parish church of Sts. Urban and Lawrence at Prima Porta.

In his homily, the Argentine cardinal, known as Pope Francis’ longtime personal theologian and ghostwriter, reflected on the prophet Isaiah’s words, “O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands,” on the first Sunday of Advent.

“When these words are spoken with the heart, it means that we let ourselves be shaped by the Lord, that we let ourselves be led by him, that we let ourselves be transformed by his grace,” Fernández said.

“There are people who don’t let themselves be transformed, and they say: ‘I’m like this, I’m fine like this, what need do I have to change anything?’ Others say: ‘I don’t commit serious sins, I’m not vicious like others, what do I need to change?’ These people are not clay, they are hard stones that will not even be touched by the Holy Spirit. And then they die despite being alive because they no longer grow and improve, much less offer something new to the Lord.”

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández celebrates his Mass of titular possession at the Church of Sts. Urban and Lawrence at Prima Porta on the northern outskirts of Rome on Dec. 3, 2023. Credit: Elizabeth Alva/EWTN
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández celebrates his Mass of titular possession at the Church of Sts. Urban and Lawrence at Prima Porta on the northern outskirts of Rome on Dec. 3, 2023. Credit: Elizabeth Alva/EWTN

Fernández noted that the Buddhists invite us to be adaptable and able to take many shapes, like water, and that the Chinese Daoist philosopher Laozi said that we must be “like the flexible branches of trees.”

“But the Word of God proposes something more personal,” he added. “To look into the eyes of God our Father, to establish a personal relationship with him and to say, ‘You are my Father.’”

“And then offer oneself to him as a handful of clay ready to be molded, ‘Mold me, Lord, as you will. I trust in your love, you know what is best for me, do with me what you will.’”

The cardinal also warned against the temptation of an idealism that “demands that everything be perfect in order to be happy.”

“In the midst of misery and darkness, there are many little things that are good, that are real. They may be imperfect, they may not be heaven, but they are real,” he said.

Pope Francis made Fernández a cardinal in the Catholic Church’s last consistory held on Sept. 30. 

In the three months since he took on the new role as the Vatican’s doctrine chief, Fernández has responded to multiple questions, or “dubia,” from cardinals and bishops submitted to the dicastery, including on issues related to transgender persons and divorced and remarried Catholics.

Fernández was one of several new cardinals to take possession of his titular church in recent weeks. 

Cardinals are assigned a titular church to formally make them a part of the Diocese of Rome, whose bishop is the pope. This means that cardinals are always linked to Rome, even if they reside elsewhere.

Portugal’s Cardinal Américo Aguiar also took possession of his church, the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua located near the Lateran Palace, on Sunday; and Poland’s Cardinal Grzegorz Ryś became the first cardinal in history to hold the 20th-century church Sts. Cyril and Methodius near Ostia as his titular church on Nov. 22.

Cardinal Claudio Gugerotti, the prefect of the Dicastery for the Eastern Churches, is scheduled to take possession of his titular church dedicated to St. Ambrose on Dec. 7, and Cardinal Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba, South Sudan, will offer his first Mass at his church, St. Gemma Galgani at Monte Sacro, on Dec. 10.

Here are 5 things to know about Cardinal Burke

Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke during the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul in St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, June 29, 2019. / Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA

CNA Staff, Dec 6, 2023 / 10:10 am (CNA).

Reports emerged last week that Cardinal Raymond Burke — a prominent American archbishop — will soon lose his current Vatican housing and salary privileges. As the details of the situation continue to come to light, here are some important things to know about Burke. 

  1. He is the former head of the Church’s highest court.

A native of Wisconsin, Burke was ordained a priest in 1975 by Pope Paul VI. Later ordained a bishop in 1995 by Pope John Paul II, Burke shepherded the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin, founding the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe while there. In 2003, he was appointed archbishop of St. Louis, a post he held from 2004–2008. 

Widely respected for his expertise in canon law, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Burke in 2008 as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura — head of the Church’s highest court. The next year, Benedict appointed Burke to the Congregation (now Dicastery) for Bishops, which is responsible for giving recommendations to the pope on episcopal candidates. The year after that, in 2010, Benedict elevated the then-62-year-old Burke to the rank of cardinal.

Burke continued to serve as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura until 2014. On his personal website, Burke notes that he has “written and spoken widely on Roman Catholic canon law, the Holy Eucharist, devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe, and the sanctity of human life.”

  1. He has been publicly critical of various papal initiatives.

Burke’s public questioning of initiatives led by Pope Francis began in earnest in 2016, when he along with three other cardinals first privately submitted “dubia” — formal requests for clarification — to Pope Francis regarding the interpretation of his apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia, published after the 2015’s Synod on the Family. (As far as is known, the pope has never replied to those requests.) The cardinals released the dubia to the public two months later, igniting significant debate in the Church and in the media. 

In an interview conducted the following year, Burke stated that he’s wrongly depicted as an “enemy” of Pope Francis but also stressed his view that current divisions in the Church demand answers to requests for clarity.

“The urgency of a response to the dubia derives from the harm done to souls by the confusion and error, which result as long as the fundamental questions raised are not answered in accord with the constant teaching and practice of the Church,” Burke said at the time.

Later on, in 2019, Burke was critical of that year’s Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region, convened by Pope Francis at the Vatican, claiming that the meeting’s working document seemed “not only in dissonance with respect to the authentic teaching of the Church, but even contrary to it.”

When Pope Francis moved to restrict the use of the Traditional Latin Mass worldwide in 2021, Burke called the new restrictions “severe and revolutionary” and questioned the pope’s authority to revoke the use of the rite. 

More recently, this fall Burke was one of five cardinals who sent a new set of dubia to Pope Francis asking for clarification on the Church’s position on doctrinal development, the blessing of same-sex unions, the authority of the ongoing Synod on Synodality, women’s ordination, and sacramental absolution. Burke has insisted that the dubia were aimed neither at the pope’s person nor his agenda but merely at safeguarding the Church’s perennial doctrine.

The cardinal has also spoken out on other hot-button topics, such as when he released a lengthy defense in 2021 of what he called a “sacred duty” on the part of Catholic bishops to apply canon law by advising pro-abortion politicians not to receive holy Communion. He recently wrote a book detailing his views on fostering a greater respect for the Eucharist and discernment of cases when the sacrament ought to be denied to people in a state of manifest grave sin. 

  1. Pope Francis has gradually reduced Burke’s official roles.

Near the end of 2013, the year of Pope Francis’ election, the new pope declined to reappoint Burke to his role as a member of the Dicastery for Bishops. 

The following year, Pope Francis removed Burke from his post as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, appointing him instead to a largely ceremonial role as cardinal patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — a role dedicated to the spiritual welfare of the members of the medieval lay religious order. 

Despite holding that post until this year, Burke had been reportedly sidelined from active involvement for several years after Pope Francis appointed then-Archbishop Angelo Becciu in 2017 as his special delegate to oversee the order’s reform. Burke thus was sidelined during the extensive institutional reforms of the order that have since taken place. 

  1. Burke survived a severe bout with COVID.

The septuagenarian Burke was hospitalized with COVID-19 in August 2021 and put on a ventilator. Burke had previously announced his diagnosis four days earlier, having fallen ill during a visit to Wisconsin.

A week later, the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which shared official news from the cardinal at the time, reported that Burke was in “serious but stable condition” and that the next few days would be critical. The shrine asked for continued prayers for Burke and his family, especially through praying the rosary and attending Mass. By Aug. 21, the shrine stated that he was off the ventilator and was leaving the hospital ICU.

By mid-October, Burke announced that he had recovered to the point of being able to once again offer daily Mass. It is not known if Burke was vaccinated against the virus, but he has been a vocal opponent of mandatory vaccines as well as the closing of churches.

  1. Burke intends to remain in Rome.

Burke lives in Rome and has signaled his intention to remain there even if he has to find and pay for his own accommodations, telling the Wall Street Journal last week that “it’s my duty as a cardinal to remain in Rome.”

Colorado parents protest after daughter told to share bed with male student on school trip

null / Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 6, 2023 / 07:30 am (CNA).

Parents of an 11-year-old girl are demanding that a Colorado school district change its transgender policies after their daughter was instructed to share a bed with a biologically male 11-year-old student who identifies as a transgender girl during an overnight school trip.

The parents, Joe and Serena Wailes, sent a letter to the Jefferson County Public Schools through their attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom claiming that the school violated their constitutional rights by failing to notify them of the sleeping arrangements and not providing them with a formal opt-out option.

Attorneys at ADF argue in the letter that the policy and the practice of the school district violates the parents’ deeply held religious beliefs and their parental rights in the education and upbringing of their children, citing Supreme Court precedent on these constitutional protections. The letter also details the parents’ difficulty in getting their daughter moved to a different room when the arrangements made her “uncomfortable.”

“Parents, not the government, have the right to direct the upbringing and education of their children, and that includes making informed decisions to protect their child’s privacy,” ADF senior counsel Kate Anderson, the director of the ADF Center for Parental Rights, said in a statement.

“Schools should never hide information from parents, yet that’s exactly what JCPS officials did here,” Anderson added. “And that put the Waileses’ 11-year-old daughter in a very challenging situation where she had to choose between sleeping in the same bed with a biological boy and advocating for her privacy in front of her teachers and peers. Understandably, the Wailes family is asking JCPS to cease its practice of intentionally withholding information about rooming accommodations from parents. Every parent should have the information needed to make the best decision for their children.”

ADF legal counsel Mallory Rechtenbach told CNA that they hope to settle the dispute with the school district amicably. She said the school district could solve the issue by providing parents with an opt-out option for such sleeping arrangements when registering the children for a trip or simply ask the parents before making the arrangements. 

“If they refuse to provide a simple opt-out… [we] have to evaluate the next best steps,” Rechtenbach added.

The current policy states that, in the context of overnight trips, “in most cases, students who are transgender should be assigned to share overnight accommodations with other students that share the student’s gender identity consistently asserted at school.” It adds that “any student who is transgender or not, who has a need or desire for increased privacy, regardless of the underlying reason, should be provided with a reasonable accommodation, which may include a private room” and “under no circumstance shall a student who is transgender be required to share a room with students whose gender identity conflicts with their own.”

ADF has not yet received a response from the school district, according to Rechtenbach.

A spokesperson for the school district issued the following statement to CNA in response to an inquiry:

"Regarding the December 4 demand letter to Jeffco Public Schools from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF): In Jeffco Public Schools, student safety is paramount and partnership with families is a priority. We take this situation seriously. Because the district was only recently informed, and the trip occurred outside of the school year and through a private travel organization, we are still determining facts. However, it appears that the student’s transgender status was not known when room assignments were made and our understanding is that as soon as their transgender identity was known, room assignments were adjusted. We are working with the private travel organization to learn more and we anticipate a more detailed response by December 18 as ADF requests," the statement reads.

An ‘uncomfortable’ situation

The letter states that the incident occurred this past summer on a cross-country overnight trip when the school district assigned the fifth grade girl to sleep in the same bed as a fifth grade student who is biologically male but identifies as a transgender girl. It alleges that neither the girl nor the girl’s parents knew about the arrangements beforehand but that the girl found out about the arrangements when the transgender student informed the girl on the first night of the trip.

According to the letter, the girl “was immediately uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing a room and a bed with a male, regardless of the student’s gender identity” and “snuck into the bathroom, which did not lock, and quietly called her mother.” The girl “met her mother in the lobby to share her concerns” and her mother asked a teacher and the principal if her daughter could be moved to another room.

The trip chaperones asked the girl “if they could merely move her to a different bed rather than a different room” and even though she was still uncomfortable, she “agreed to try it for one night because she was tired after a long travel day,” the letter asserts. Yet, once she moved to the other bed, another girl “offered to let [the transgender student] also switch to the bed near the air conditioner,” which forced the girl to go “into the hall and again [and tell her mother] she was uncomfortable.” 

“Despite [her] continued uneasiness with the arrangement, she was scared to speak up in front of the other students on such a contentious subject,” the letter states.

According to the letter, the girl and her mother “returned to the school chaperone and again asked for [her daughter] to be moved to a different room [and], this time, the chaperones agreed to move [the transgender student] and one other girl to a different room.”

The letter also asserts that the chaperones lied to the other roommates about why the sleeping arrangements were being changed and instructed the girl to lie as well because the transgender student’s parents said their child “was to be in ‘stealth mode,’ meaning students on the trip would not know about their child’s transgender status.”

“After JCPS disregarded [the girl’s] privacy and the Waileses’ parental rights, JCPS then silenced [the girl], thus infringing on her freedom of speech, when a JCPS teacher told the three girls that they were not allowed to tell anyone that [the student] was transgender, even though [the student] voluntarily chose to share this information,” the letter states.

The parents also have two fourth grade children who are registered to take a school trip to New York; Washington, D.C.; and Philadelphia next year, according to the letter. The attorneys are asking the school district to respond to their letter by Dec. 16 with clarification on opt-out options in the policy and assurances that such clarifications are included in the written policy going forward.

This article has been updated to include a statement from the school district.

Pope Francis at general audience: ‘The Spirit is the protagonist’ of evangelization

Pope Francis speaks at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Dec 6, 2023 / 04:22 am (CNA).

Pope Francis’ multi-week catechetical series on the essential components of the proclamation of the Gospel culminated with a fourth and final component: the Holy Spirit as the protagonist of evangelization. 

Amid applause at his entrance, Pope Francis greeted the faithful present in the Paul VI Audience Hall on Wednesday, Dec. 6. The Holy Father announced that Monsignor Filippo Ciampanelli would again read the prepared remarks on his behalf — as he did during the Nov. 29 audience — with Francis noting that he was “still struggling” from the lingering effects of a flu infection. “But I’m better,” the Holy Father said. 

Pope Francis speaks with young people at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis speaks with young people at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

Building off of the series’ previous themes of joy, the universality of the Gospel message, and the relevance of the Gospel for the modern world, the pope observed that the work of proclaiming the Gospel “always belongs to God.”

The Holy Father underscored that proclaiming the Gospel is never an act of self-promotion. By emulating the example of Jesus as the “first and greatest evangelizer,” we are to “cooperate with him and who leads us on by the power of his Spirit.” 

But it is only possible to “imitate his style” by eschewing personal preferences and listening to an authentic call from the Spirit, the pope reflected.

Pope Francis greets pilgrims at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets pilgrims at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

“Without the Holy Spirit, all zeal is vain and falsely apostolic: It would only be our own and would not bear fruit,” the pope observed. 

The pope noted that the Holy Spirit “always precedes the missionaries and makes the fruit grow.” Yet while it “comforts us a great deal” to recognize the Holy Spirit as a gift from God, the pope cautioned against the pitfall of falling into “indolence.” 

“Confidence does not justify disengagement. The vitality of the seed that grows by itself does not authorize farmers to neglect the field,” Francis reflected.

Pope Francis shares a hug with a young pilgrim at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis shares a hug with a young pilgrim at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

The pope warned against the temptation to cloister ourselves in “safety zones” that can take the form of “the habitual repetition of things one always does, or in the alluring calls of an intimist spirituality, or even in a misunderstood sense of the centrality of the liturgy.”

“They are temptations that disguise themselves as fidelity to tradition, but often, rather than responses to the Spirit, they are reactions to personal dissatisfactions,” he noted.

The pope went on to highlight that this tendency exists not only within the framework of the Church but also is a general challenge presented by a world characterized by rapid secularization and estrangement from God.

Pope Francis greets women religious at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets women religious at his general audience on Dec. 6, 2023, in Paul VI Hall at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

“In this age of ours, which does not help us have a religious outlook on life, and in which the proclamation has become in various places more difficult, arduous, apparently fruitless, the temptation to desist from pastoral service may arise,” the Holy Father observed. 

To counteract the tendency of falling into closed communities and the danger of living a static faith, the process of listening to the spirit and authentically proclaiming the Gospel is underscored by both “creativity and simplicity,” the pope argued.

By doing so we “return to the source and to recover the original freshness of the Gospel, new avenues arise, new paths of creativity open up, with different forms of expression, more eloquent signs and words with new meaning for today’s world,” the pope observed, quoting from his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium

5 things to know and share about St. Nicholas

St. Nicholas, by Jaroslav Čermák (1831-1878). / Credit: Galerie Art Praha via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

Vatican City, Dec 6, 2023 / 04:00 am (CNA).

St. Nicholas, whose feast day is celebrated on Dec. 6, is well known as possibly the real-life inspiration for the beloved Christmas character of Santa Claus.

Not a lot is known about the historical Nicholas, who was bishop of Myra, a Greek city in modern-day Turkey, during the fourth century A.D.

But there are many stories and legends that explain his reputation as a just and upright man, charitable gift-giver, and miracle worker.

Here are five things to know and share about St. Nicholas:

1. The legend behind why St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children

Many people know that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of children, but they may not know why he has that title.

There is a grisly legend that says that during a famine in Myra, three young boys were lured into a butcher’s shop, where they were killed and then brined in a wooden barrel with the intention of being sold as “ham.” The good bishop worked a miracle, bringing the pickled children back to life and saving them from a gruesome fate.

Painting by Gentile da Fabriano, who lived in Italy from c. 1370 to 1427. Public Domain.
Painting by Gentile da Fabriano, who lived in Italy from c. 1370 to 1427. Public Domain.

This story became the subject of many portrayals of Nicholas in art, especially during the Middle Ages. Some people believe depictions of Bishop Nicholas with the three boys led to his reputation as a protector of children.

The legend of the brining may explain how he also became, oddly, the patron saint of brewers and coopers (people who make wooden casks, barrels, vats, troughs, and similar containers from timber).

2. One of the foremost saints in the Russian Orthodox Church

St. Nicholas is a unifying figure among Catholics and Orthodox Christians since both groups venerate him.

But he is incredibly important in the Russian Orthodox Church, where he is known as St. Nicholas the Wonderworker for the many miracles attributed to him both during and after his life.

To the Orthodox, Nicholas is principally honored for his qualities as a holy bishop and good shepherd of his people.

Also, in their weekly liturgical cycle, which dedicates different days of the week to Jesus Christ and other saints, only three are specifically named: Mary, the Mother of God; John the Forerunner (known to Catholics as John the Baptist); and St. Nicholas.

Nicholas did not leave behind any theological writings, but when he was made a bishop, he is credited with saying that “this dignity and this office demand different usage, in order that one should live no longer for oneself but for others.”

3. Jolly ol’ St. Nicholas?

Because of his popularity among Orthodox Christians, St. Nicholas is a favorite subject in iconography.

But don’t be surprised if, among the hundreds of icons depicting him, you don’t see any merry dimples or a “round little belly.” He does have a white beard, though.

An icon of St. Nicholas painted in 1294 for a Russian Orthodox church on Lipno Island in northwestern Russia. Public Domain
An icon of St. Nicholas painted in 1294 for a Russian Orthodox church on Lipno Island in northwestern Russia. Public Domain

4. Patron saint of unmarried people, fishermen, pawnbrokers, and the falsely accused

One of the most popular legends about Nicholas is that the saint, who is said to have come from a wealthy family, secretly helped a poor man with three daughters.

The father could not provide proper dowries for the girls to marry, and without husbands to support them, they might have been forced to turn to prostitution.

After learning about the situation, Nicholas secretly slipped a bag of gold coins through the family’s window while they were sleeping. He later left a second bag of coins, and likewise, another bag for the third daughter, at which point, the legend says, the father, who had waited up all night, “caught” Nicholas red-handed in his gift-giving. But Nicholas made him promise to keep the secret.

The story is likely the explanation for why the modern Christmas character of Santa Claus brings his gifts for children under the cover of night.

In artworks referencing this legend, the three bags of coins are often depicted as three golden balls. Images of gold balls were also used to mark the shops of pawnbrokers, which is probably how Nicholas came to be their patron saint, too.

A painting of St. Nicholas and Mary Magdalene by Antonello da Messina, created between 1475 and 1476. Public Domain
A painting of St. Nicholas and Mary Magdalene by Antonello da Messina, created between 1475 and 1476. Public Domain

One of many miracles attributed to St. Nicholas happened at sea as he traveled aboard a boat to the Holy Land. Nicholas is a patron saint of sailors and travelers because he calmed the stormy waters that threatened their lives.

His patronage of the falsely accused can be attributed to an early story about his rescue of three innocent men moments before their execution. It is said that St. Nicholas, then bishop of Myra, boldly pushed away the executioner’s sword, released the men from their chains, and angrily reprimanded a juror who had taken a bribe to find them guilty.

5. Two feast days

Most people know that Nicholas’ feast day is celebrated on Dec. 6, the day he died in the year 343, but for East Slavs, as well as the people of Bari, Italy, May 9 is also an important day to celebrate the saint.

That date is the anniversary of the day that St. Nicholas’ relics were moved from Myra, in present-day Turkey, to Bari, not long after the Great Schism of Catholics and Orthodox in 1054 A.D.

Accounts differ over whether the transmission of the relics was theft or an attempt by Christian sailors to preserve the saint’s remains from destruction by the Turks. But whatever the real reason, the relics can still be venerated today in the Basilica of St. Nicholas in Bari.

Pope Francis visited Bari, in Italy’s southern region of Puglia, two times during his papacy. During both the 2018 and 2020 visits, he stopped in the basilica’s crypt to venerate St. Nicholas’ relics.

Perrant via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0
Perrant via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

The pontifical basilica is an important place of ecumenism, since the Catholic Church welcomes many Eastern Catholics and Orthodox Christians to the pilgrimage site. In the crypt, where St. Nicholas is buried, there is also an altar for the celebration of Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgies.

For Christians who follow the Julian calendar, as the Eastern Orthodox do, St. Nicholas’ principal feast day falls on Dec. 19. An Orthodox Divine Liturgy is usually celebrated at the Basilica of St. Nicholas that morning.

On Dec. 6, Catholics in Bari celebrate the beloved saint with Mass, concerts, and a procession of the saint’s statue through the city’s streets.

This article was originally published Dec. 6, 2022, and has been updated.

Sen. Tuberville ends pro-life blockade for hundreds of military appointments

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, speaks to members of the press at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 15, 2023 in Washington, D.C. / Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Dec 5, 2023 / 21:02 pm (CNA).

Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Alabama, will allow hundreds of military appointments to get through the Senate as he ends his 10-month-long pro-life blockade that sought to force the Pentagon to change its abortion policies.

The senator began blocking military appointments that need Senate confirmation in February by refusing to allow them to pass via unanimous consent. The blockade was a protest against a Department of Defense policy that provides paid leave and reimbursement for travel expenses for service members who seek to obtain an abortion. It also covers travel costs for dependents and spouses.

Although the policy is still in place, Tuberville announced on Tuesday that he would end his blockade for most appointments — the backlog has grown to more than 400. He said he would only maintain his blockade against a handful of very senior positions. 

“I’m not going to hold the promotions of these people any longer,” Tuberville told reporters, according to CBS News. “We just released them —  about 440 of them. Everybody but 10 or 11 four-stars.”

The military appointments are normally a routine process approved in large blocs by unanimous consent of the Senate. Without unanimous consent, the Senate would have needed to vote on each appointment individually. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, chose to only bring a handful of appointment votes up individually, declining to bypass the blockade of most appointments.

Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, thanked Tuberville for maintaining the blockade for 10 months in a post on X, which was reposted by the senator.

“We’re proud of the stand that [Tuberville] took on behalf of the preborn,” Hawkins said. “Every day he stood firm was a message sent to Washington that the lives of America’s preborn are worth defending, even if Joe Biden and his Pentagon don’t think so.”

Federal law prohibits Department of Defense funds from being “used to perform abortions except where the life of the mother would be endangered if the fetus were carried to term or in a case in which the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”

Even though the law does not expressly prohibit funds for travel expenses or paid leave to obtain an abortion, some Republican lawmakers have argued that such policies violate the statute. Republicans have introduced bills that would expressly prohibit agencies from using funds in this way, but those efforts have been blocked in the Democratic-controlled Senate.

Mexican lawmakers urged to oppose bill criminalizing ‘conversion therapy’

null / Credit: Image of Freepik

ACI Prensa Staff, Dec 5, 2023 / 18:40 pm (CNA).

More than 170 civil society organizations, led by the National Front for the Family and the Citizens’ Initiative for Life and Family, are calling on the political parties represented in the federal Chamber of Deputies (lower house) in Mexico to oppose a bill that seeks to “criminalize” so-called “conversion therapy” for persons with unwanted same-sex attraction.

In a letter addressed to the presidents and coordinators of the political parties that have a presence in the Chamber of Deputies, the organizations denounced the attempt to criminalize any person “for proposing any therapy, support, accompaniment, guide, or orientation; by creating new crimes against ‘gender confusion.’”

The proposal, which seeks to amend the Federal Penal Code and the General Law on Health, calls for significant penalties, including prison sentences and fines that could exceed 207,000 Mexican pesos (about $11,800) for those who offer or perform such therapy.

According to the bill, so-called “conversion therapy” would be classified as “crimes against people’s sexual orientation or gender identity” and would penalize any person who “performs, imparts, applies, forces, or finances any type of of treatment, therapy, service, or practice that hinders, restricts, impedes, undermines, nullifies, or suppresses the sexual orientation, gender identity, or expression of a person.”

The bill also states that the parents or guardians of people “who engage in the penalized conduct will be subject to being sanctioned with a reprimand or warning at the discretion of the judge.”

The pro-family civil society organizations expressed their concern about the “ambiguity” in the wording of the initiative, pointing out that terms such as “any practice” and expressions such as “hinder, restrict, impede, undermine, annul, or suppress” are “extremely subjective and ambiguous,” which could lead to indiscriminate interpretations.

“With a simple complaint from someone who subjectively believes that their sexual orientation, identity, or gender expression is being ‘hindered, restricted, impeded, undermined, nullified, or suppressed,’” any citizen could get two to 24 years in prison, the organizations warned.

If the bill is passed, they pointed out, “Mexico would be turned into the country with the least respect for fundamental freedoms, since a regime of terror would be installed contrary to health care workers’ [freedom to]  exercise their profession, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and academic freedom.”

The bill is expected to be discussed during an ordinary session Dec. 5.

What is ‘conversion therapy’?

Commonly understood, “conversion therapy” encompasses both a series of psychological and scientific practices as well as religious methods that come, for the most part, from the American Protestant world and are based on evangelical anthropology, which is very different from Catholic anthropology.

However, the LGBT community often uses the term “conversion therapy” to denigrate and criminalize any form of help, even psychological, for people with same-sex attraction.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.