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Great faith sprouts from small, humble actions, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- God makes his presence known not by those who claim to have great faith but by those who are little and humble, Pope Francis said.

Priests, bishops and laypeople who "do not take on this path of littleness" will fall like the Christians of the past who "sought to impose themselves with force, greatness and by conquering," the pope said in his homily Dec. 3 during morning Mass at Domus Sanctae Marthae.

"The Kingdom of God sprouts in the small things, always in the small things, the small seed, the seed of life," he said.

Celebrating the memorial of St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of the Jesuits, the pope dressed in white vestments, which signify joy, innocence, purity and glory.

He reflected on the day's Gospel reading in which Jesus praises God for having hidden his divine revelation from the wise and instead "revealed them to the childlike."

Littleness, the pope said, is where "redemption, revelation, the presence of God in the world begins."

"The great ones present themselves as powerful. Let us think about Jesus' temptation in the desert, like Satan who presents himself as powerful, the lord of the whole world," the pope said. "Instead, the things of God begin by sprouting from a small seed. And Jesus speaks of this littleness in the Gospel," he said.

Christmas, he continued, also serves as a reminder of this since "we will all go to the creche where the littleness of God is" found.

True Christians "always starts from littleness" and in prayer, they "give thanks to God because we are little," he said.

"If, in prayer, I feel little, with my limits, my sins, like that publican who prayed at the back of the church, ashamed: 'Have mercy on me for I am a sinner,' you will go forward. But if you think you are a good Christian, you will pray like that Pharisee who did not leave justified: 'I give you thanks, God, because I am great,'" he said.

Pope Francis said his favorite sacrament to administer is the sacrament of confession, especially to children because "they tell you concrete facts."

The concreteness of one who is small. 'Lord, I am a sinner because I did this, this, this and this. This is my misery; this is my littleness. But send your spirit so that I will not be afraid of the big things, that I may not be afraid of you doing great things in my life,'" the pope said.

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Defend dignity of persons with disabilities, pope says

IMAGE: CNS/Paul Haring

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The dignity and rights of people with disabilities are increasingly threatened by a society that discriminates and views them as a burden, Pope Francis said.

In a letter marking the U.N.'s International Day of Persons with Disabilities Dec. 3, the pope said that humanity needs to "develop antibodies against a culture that considers some lives as class A and others as class B; this is a social sin!"

"Have the courage to give a voice to those who are discriminated against because of their disability, because unfortunately in some countries, even today, it is difficult to recognize them as persons of equal dignity, as brothers and sisters in humanity," he said.

The International Day of Persons with Disabilities "aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life," according to the U.N. website.

In his letter, the pope acknowledged that while "great progress" has been made in medicine and legislation, the influence of a throwaway culture leaves many disabled persons "feeling that they exist without belonging and without participating" in society.

"Making good laws and breaking down physical barriers is important," the pope wrote, "but it is not enough if the mentality does not change, if we do not overcome a widespread culture that continues to produce inequalities and prevents people with disabilities from actively participating in ordinary life."

Pope Francis said that discrimination and prejudice against persons with disabilities limits their access to education, employment and participation in society. He also said that service and commitment to those in need "determines the degree of a nation's civility."

"A person with disabilities, in order to build himself or herself up, needs not only to exist but also to belong to a community," he said. "I pray that each person may feel the paternal gaze of God, who affirms their full dignity and the unconditional value of their life."

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Update: Work on Wisconsin farm prepared slain brother for service in Guatemala

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Christian Bro

By Sam Lucero

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CNS) -- Before donning the habit of a Christian Brother in 1962, Brother James Miller wore the bib overalls of a Wisconsin farm boy.

While in his green work clothes, repairing a wall outside of the Casa Indigena De La Salle -- his religious community's school for indigenous boys in Huehuetenango, Guatemala -- Brother Miller, 37, was gunned down by three men Feb. 13, 1982.

Nearly 37 years after his death, Brother Miller will be beatified during Mass Dec. 7 at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception in Huehuetenango. He will be the first American-born Christian Brother declared blessed.

To his friends and family, Brother Miller was a farm boy through and through. He was also a deeply spiritual man who grew to love the poor, indigenous people of Guatemala, who, like him, were close to the land.

"Jim was a man of faith. He lived and gave his life helping poor Indian boys learn the trade of farming so they could feed themselves," said fellow Christian Brother Stephen Markham, who grew up on a farm in Iowa and entered the Christian Brothers the same time as Brother Miller.

Born Sept. 21, 1944, in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Brother Miller was the oldest of Arnold and Lorraine Miller's five children. His siblings include brothers Bill and Ralph, and sisters Pat Richter and Louise Shafranski. Their father operated a dairy farm that, at its peak, had 68 cows, said Ralph Miller, who today operates the family homestead in Ellis with his brother, Bill.

The siblings recall their eldest brother as full of faith.

"He always wanted to be a priest at the start," Ralph Miller said in a telephone interview. When Brother Miller was young, he used to play the role of priest and celebrate Mass.

"Jim made a tabernacle from an old clock and a monstrance from a tinker toy set," said Brother Markham. "When he was around 10 or 12 years old, he was halfway home from confession when he exclaimed, 'Oh, I forgot to say my penance.' So he knelt right down there on the road and prayed."

One of his duties on the farm was to tend to the chickens, said Brother Markham. "One day his brother Bill saw him kneeling over a hurt chicken and praying for it that it would not die."

Working with his hands and fixing things around the farm helped Brother Miller later on as a missionary, said Shafranski, his sister.

"Jim's background was a perfect fit," she said in an email. "Not only did he have a true calling to the Christian Brothers, but the fact that he started from a humble farm background ... gave him the knowledge to know how to fix things. It also kept him grounded to the basics of land, faith and family."

He attended grade school in his hometown of Ellis, then entered Pacelli Catholic High School in Stevens Point in 1958. It was at Pacelli where Brother Miller was introduced to the Christian Brothers, who staffed the Catholic high school.

After one year at Pacelli, he joined the junior novitiate. In September 1959 he was sent to Glencoe, Missouri.

"In one day, I left the state of Wisconsin for the first time, took my first train ride and saw a building over four stories high," Brother Miller wrote in a two-page autobiography for his religious community in June 1978.

He finished his novitiate in Winona, Minnesota, in 1963, earned a bachelor's degree at St. Mary's College, Winona, in 1966, and was sent to teach Spanish at then-Cretin High School in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Brother Miller's first exposure to Central America was in July 1969, when he spent the summer in Bluefields, Nicaragua, studying Spanish. He returned to St. Paul, but made his way back to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, in March 1974. During his five years in Nicaragua, Brother Miller helped build an industrial arts and vocational education complex; served as principal of a government-owned high school, Instituto Nacional Bartolome Colon; and even volunteered as a local fire department chief.

"Since I have quite a bit of experience in building construction, the Nicaraguan government recently asked me to supervise the construction of 10 new rural grade schools being built in the region," he wrote in his autobiography. "I find a lot of satisfaction working among the very poor here in Nicaragua."

His association with the Nicaraguan government of Anastasio Somoza led to Brother Miller's departure after the Sandinista revolution in 1979. He returned to St. Paul and taught one more year at Cretin High School before being assigned to Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

Brother Paul Joslin was president of the Christian Brothers community in Huehuetenango when Brother Miller arrived in January 1981.

"Brother James and I were the director and co-director of Casa Indigena," which housed about 150 indigenous youth from the Guatemalan highlands who were training to be teachers, said Brother Joslin.

Brother Miller, whose name in Spanish was Hermano Santiago, quickly found ways to put his fix-it skills to work, repairing plumbing and electrical problems at Casa Indigena.

In a telephone interview, Brother Joslin recalled the tense buildup of fear following reports of pending violence, and the disbelief when he received word of Brother Miller's murder.

The "preferential option for the poor," a pastoral challenge presented by the Latin American bishops in 1968, influenced the Christian Brothers to provide education to the indigenous children in Guatemala and also led to military retaliation, he said.

Just days before Brother Miller's assassination, the religious community was warned by a border patrol agent, whose office was located at a nearby army base, that members of a death squad were looking for one of the seven Christian Brothers in Huehuetenango.

"We were forewarned, but despite that, the decision that we made individually and collectively, was to remain in Huehuetenango for as long as possible," said Brother Joslin.

On the morning of his death, Brother Miller informed Brother Joslin that he would accompany students on a picnic to celebrate Valentine's Day. After returning, Brother Miller decided to fix a hole on a wall near the Casa Indigena entrance, just one block from the cathedral on a crowded shopping street.

"He had to get up on a ladder in order to do it," said Brother Joslin. While on the ladder, three men walking past the entrance, pulled out guns and shot him numerous times. Sister Madeleva Manzanares Suazo, a nurse serving at a nearby hospice, heard the gunshots and ran to find Brother Miller on the ground. He apparently died instantly.

"When this happened, I was in the brothers' house next to the school, which was one kilometer away from Casa Indigena," said Brother Joslin. "When I got there, I can't tell you how awful it was, the shock, but when I went to reach, to touch Santiago, there was a policeman standing there and he snapped at me and said, 'Don't touch him.'

"I did pick up the hat he was wearing ... and it was still full of sweat, as if he were still alive," added Brother Joslin.

The local bishop celebrated Mass the following day; more than 1,000 students, parents and friends of the Christian Brothers then processed to the local airfield.

Brother Miller's body was flown to Guatemala City, where two more Masses were celebrated. Brother Joslin accompanied the coffin from Guatemala to St. Paul, Minn., where Archbishop John Roach celebrated Mass Feb. 16 at the Cathedral of St. Paul.

The body of Brother Miller was returned to Wisconsin for another Mass, then burial at St. Martin Cemetery in Ellis, one mile south of the farm where he was raised.

In a memorial written shortly after Brother Miller's death, Brother Markham said his friend "followed no other star but his own."

"He was proud of his farm background and never hesitated to share his farm stories, no matter who the audience," he said. "He loved his roots, he loved his family dearly."

In December 1981, during a visit to Minnesota, when Brother Miller had knee surgery, Brother Markham "asked Jim if he wasn't frightened by the thought of returning."

"Jim responded, 'You don't think about that, that's not why you're there. There's too much to be done. ' If it happens, it happens," Brother Markham wrote.

Brother Miller was one of more than 200,000 people killed during Guatemala's 36-year civil war, which ended in 1996. He was the second Catholic missionary from the United States murdered in Guatemala.

Father Stanley Rother, pastor of St. James the Apostle Parish in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, was shot to death in his rectory July 28, 1981. Pope Francis officially recognized Father Rother, a priest of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, as a martyr for the faith, and on Sept. 23, 2017, Father Rother was beatified in Oklahoma City.

On Feb. 13, 2007, the 25th anniversary of Brother Miller's death, Casa Indigena, the center he called home, was renamed Centro Indigena Santiago Miller.

In an email, Shafranski recalled her brother telling her that he would return to Guatemala even though he faced danger.

"I could be kidnapped, tortured and killed, or I could simply be gunned down," she said he told her. "I knew Jim was very dedicated and committed to his students in Huehuetenango. There was no stopping him from going back."

Louise and Rich Shafranski will travel to Guatemala for the beatification Dec. 7. She is the only sibling who is able to attend.

"The one thing I hope people (remember) is that Jim was a real person. He was a son, brother, Christian Brother and friend," she said. "He had a hardy laugh, a ready smile, a quick wit, a good sense of humor, and was a genuine hard-working person. He was a man who felt happiness and sorrow, had great love for both family and the church. He loved working with his hands, and was through and through a little farm boy at heart."

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Lucero is news and information manager for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.

 

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Church seeks what is best for those who are wounded, pope says

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Carol Glatz

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The sacrament of marriage cannot be "improvised," but must be prepared for, nourished and supported throughout the couple's journey, Pope Francis said.

Christian couples also must be helped to pursue their "particular vocation to become missionary disciples as spouses, witnesses of the Gospel in family life, at work, in society, wherever the Lord calls them," he said. And they must be given the space in parish ministries to fulfill that call.

The pope made his remarks Nov. 30, in a meeting with men and women enrolled in a course offered by the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal primarily responsible for hearing requests for marriage annulments. The course, held Nov. 26-30, was on safeguarding marriage and on the pastoral care of "wounded couples."

"The church will never be able to go on its way, turning its head away" from those couples facing crisis, he said.

"The church, when it encounters the reality of wounded couples, first of all cries and suffers with them," the pope said. "It draws near to them with the oil of consolation to sooth and to heal. It wants to take upon itself all the pain it encounters."

Helping those couples and dealing with their marriage cases can never be a merely impersonal and "bureaucratic" process, the pope said; rather, it involves "entering into" their lived experience and offering compassion.

The church's canonical and juridical processes are part of its mission "always and only to seek the good of those who are wounded, seek the truth of their love," he said.

The church has no other intention than "to support their just and desired happiness, which, before it being a personal good to which we all humanly aspire, is a gift that God sets aside for his children and that comes from him," the pope said.

The church, he said, must prepare and support couples so that marriage be "that which the Lord Jesus wanted it to be," a vocation and sacrament that fills both spouses with joy and with spiritual and human fulfilment.

Married couples are the "columns" of the domestic church, he said, and they are instrumental in the church's missionary mandate.

Marriage, he said, is a couple's vocation, calling them to "demonstrate the beauty of their belonging to him" and to show others how faith adds to their love, which in turn can be "the epiphany in the world of Christian hope offered by Christ."

 

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Pope saddened by deadly protests in Iraq

IMAGE: CNS photo/Alaa al-Marjani, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis said he was concerned and saddened following two months of protests in Iraq that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

"I pray for the dead and the wounded; I am close to their families and to the entire people of Iraq, calling upon God for peace and harmony," the pope said Dec. 1 after praying the Angelus prayer with pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Square.

The pope's remarks came nearly four days after Iraqi security forces fired on unarmed protesters, leading to the deaths of 25 people and the wounding of dozens more, according to Amnesty International.

Since the protests began Oct. 1, an estimated 400 demonstrators have been killed. Protesters have expressed anger at government authorities for widespread financial mismanagement, corruption and increasing poverty in the country.

The protests resulted in the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi Dec. 1 and for calls by international observers for investigations into the killing of protesters.

Iraqi Cardinal Louis Sako, Chaldean Catholic patriarch, expressed his "solidarity with Iraqi Shias and Sunnis" and his concern for those who died or were wounded in the protests, said a statement on the patriarchate's website. He asked all Catholics to pray for the country at Masses Dec. 1.

Cardinal Sako, in the statement posted Nov. 30, said he hoped that "the blood that has been shed as a price" for a free, dignified and secure life in Iraq, will be the seeds of an effort "to build a homeland of justice and independence, in which no one would be oppressed or treated unfairly."

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Pope asks Catholics to set up, be enchanted by a Nativity scene

IMAGE: CNS photo/Vatican Media

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- A Nativity scene is a simple reminder of something astonishing: God became human to reveal the greatness of his love "by smiling and opening his arms to all," Pope Francis said in a letter on the meaning and importance of setting up Christmas cribs.

"Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas creche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition," the pope wrote in his apostolic letter, "Admirabile Signum" ("Enchanting Image").

Pope Francis signed the short letter Dec. 1, the first Sunday of Advent, during an afternoon visit to Greccio, Italy, where St. Francis of Assisi set up the first Nativity scene in 1223.

When St. Francis had a cave prepared with a hay-filled manger, an ox and a donkey -- no statues or actors or baby, even -- he "carried out a great work of evangelization," Pope Francis said, and Catholics can and must continue that work today.

"With this letter," he wrote, "I wish to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the Nativity scene in the days before Christmas, but also the custom of setting it up in the workplace, in schools, hospitals, prisons and town squares."

"It is my hope that this custom will never be lost and that, wherever it has fallen into disuse, it can be rediscovered and revived," the pope said.

At the heart of even the simplest Nativity scene, he said, there is a reminder of "God's tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness."

Then, he said, there is the fact that this baby is "the source and sustenance of all life. In Jesus, the Father has given us a brother who comes to seek us out whenever we are confused or lost, a loyal friend ever at our side. He gave us his son who forgives us and frees us from our sins."

The magic of the season goes deep when someone -- child or adult -- gazes upon a Nativity scene, he said. And whether or not they can put what they experience into words, they come away knowing that "God's ways are astonishing, for it seems impossible that he should forsake his glory to become a man like us."

"To our astonishment, we see God acting exactly as we do: He sleeps, takes milk from his mother, cries and plays like every other child! As always, God baffles us. He is unpredictable, constantly doing what we least expect," Pope Francis wrote. "The Nativity scene shows God as he came into our world, but it also makes us reflect on how our life is part of God's own life. It invites us to become his disciples if we want to attain ultimate meaning in life."

Knowing that some families keep to the essential characters and setting while others add all sorts of characters and buildings and streams and towns, Pope Francis said even "fanciful additions show that in the new world inaugurated by Jesus there is room for whatever is truly human and for all God's creatures."

But he focused in the letter on some key elements, starting with the starry night, the simplicity of the stable and the poverty of the shepherds.

Giving the Nativity scene a nighttime backdrop, he said, respects the Gospel account of Jesus' birth but also serves to remind people of times when they've experienced darkness. The creche, he said, says, "Even then, God does not abandon us, but is there to answer our crucial questions about the meaning of life. Who am I? Where do I come from? Why was I born at this time in history? Why do I love? Why do I suffer? Why will I die?"

"It was to answer these questions that God became man," the pope wrote. " His closeness brings light where there is darkness and shows the way to those dwelling in the shadow of suffering."

The simple shepherds, who were the first to go to the stable to see the newborn Jesus, are reminders that "the humble and the poor" are the first to welcome the good news, the pope said. "In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the Nativity scene has invited us to 'feel' and 'touch' the poverty that God's son took upon himself in the incarnation."

That, in turn, calls Jesus' disciples "to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross," the pope wrote. "It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need."

"Jesus, 'gentle and humble in heart,' was born in poverty and led a simple life in order to teach us to recognize what is essential and to act accordingly," he said.

Mary is a model of discipleship, faithfully accepting God's will for her life and sharing him with others, inviting them to obey him. Joseph, too, accepts the role God assigned him, protecting the baby Jesus, teaching him and raising him.

And, of course, the pope wrote, "when, at Christmas, we place the statue of the Infant Jesus in the manger, the Nativity scene suddenly comes alive. God appears as a child, for us to take into our arms."

The whole scene, he said, reminds adult Catholics of their childhood and of learning the faith from their parents and grandparents. Each year, it should be a reminder that the faith needs to be passed on to one's children and grandchildren.

Standing together before a Nativity scene, in wonder and awe, he said, is a simple way to start.

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The Vatican's English translation of the pope's letter can be found at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20191201_admirabile-signum.html

The Spanish translation is available at: http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/es/apost_letters/documents/papa-francesco-lettera-ap_20191201_admirabile-signum.html

 

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50 years since White House conference on food, hunger issues remain

IMAGE: CNS photo/Jim West

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Fifty years ago, the White House sponsored a Dec. 2-4 conference on food, nutrition and health designed to set the groundwork for a national nutrition policy and to advise President Richard Nixon on the best ways to eliminate hunger and malnutrition in the United States.

The conference succeeded in initiating policies to improve school lunch programs and nutrition education and to give more consumer protection -- which led to the nutritional labeling food buyers are now accustomed to.

The conference also helped develop the Women, Infants and Children program, which offers supplemental food assistance to low-income pregnant women and mothers and their children up to age 5, and it paved the way for the first major expansion of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which helps low-income individuals and families buy food.

Fast forward 50 years and food policy advocates still have a lot on their plates, so to speak, in efforts to address food insecurities across the country as well as growing food-related epidemics of diabetes and obesity. They also want to ensure policies that took shape 50 years ago do not face pending cuts proposed by President Donald Trump's administration.

Panelists at a Capitol Hill gathering Oct. 30 marked the White House food conference's anniversary and discussed ways to move forward. Even though Americans are not besieged by scurvy, they said, nor are there constant images of children with extended bellies from starvation, the overall lack of access to healthy food and good nutrition remains a major issue.

The event, which offered healthy snacks and water, was sponsored by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston and Hunger Free America, a nonprofit advocacy group based in New York.

Several of the panelists cited troubling statistics on hunger. Notably, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2019 Household Food Insecurity in the United States report said more than 37 million people in the U.S. struggle with hunger.

Other statistics they shared, compiled by Hunger Free America, include:

-- 14.3 million American households were food insecure with limited or uncertain access to enough food in 2018.

-- More than 11 million children live in food-insecure households.

-- Many households that experience food insecurity do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and need to rely on their local food banks and other hunger relief organizations for support.

No one needs to tell these facts to those who work in public policy at Catholic Charities USA or its local agencies providing food to those in need every day.

Anthony Granado, vice president of government relations for Catholic Charities USA, said there are a number of food and nutrition policies that have the support of Catholic Charities, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Health Association, Catholic Rural Life and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Those groups submitted a joint comment objecting to the Trump administration's proposal to tighten eligibility standards for SNAP that would cause about 3.1 million people nationwide to lose their food stamp benefits.

The comment, submitted Sept. 23, called SNAP the "first line of defense against hunger for those struggling to make ends meet," noting that just last year the program served 40.3 million people.

They warned that the proposed policy change would impact individual and community health since food insecurity is linked to chronic conditions such as diabetes and is associated with increased risks of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke and arthritis, to name a few.

They also said the proposed changes to SNAP would bring more people to charities for help when they are already feeding millions each year.

"Our organizations already struggle to meet the needs in our communities and are forced to turn away many for lack of resources. The proposed rule, if implemented, will only add to a demand that we cannot meet," their comment letter said.

Lizanne Hagedorn, director of Nutritional Development Services for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, an agency that got its start just two years after the White House conference, knows all about food needs and hasn't seen them decrease by any means.

As the head of agency that administers local federally funded child nutrition programs and a community food program, Hagedorn said those who come for help are not always atypical; in recent years the agency has seen more senior citizens and college students. She also has seen a shrinking pool of volunteers to serve those in need at food pantries.

Hagedorn said over the years the agency also has changed its offerings because of clients' health conditions and also to educate children about healthy food choices and exercise so they don't develop health problems. "We want to make sure we are helping their lifelong existence," she told Catholic News Service Nov. 21.

She said she is honored to do this work, which she admits is "not always easy and the (government) regulations are ridiculous" because on any given day they have given people a meal that can help them to face the next day.

"It's in our blood as Catholic Christians to be good stewards of food and money and to bring everybody along," she said, adding: "Not in an overbearing way but understanding 'there but for the grace of God go I.'"

As she sees it, the agency's job will remain for the long haul but with good reason. She said the employees are using their gifts and talents to "help everyone live a better life and be healthier, I know that's what we're supposed to do."

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim

 

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Pope prays for Albania after earthquake leaves dozens dead

IMAGE: CNS photo/Guglielmo Mangiapane, Reuters

By Junno Arocho Esteves

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis led prayers for the people of Albania after the country was struck by a magnitude 6.4 earthquake.

"I would like to send my greetings and my closeness to the dear people of Albania who have suffered so much in these days," the pope said Nov. 27 before concluding his weekly general audience.

"Albania was the first country in Europe I wanted to visit. I am close to the victims. I pray for the dead, for the wounded, for the families. May the Lord bless this country that I love so much," he said.

The earthquake struck in the early hours of the morning Nov. 26 and was felt as far away as Serbia. According to Albanian news agency, Shqiptarja, authorities said the death toll was at least 26 people and an estimated 650 wounded.

First responders worked throughout the day to recover bodies and rescue survivors from crumbled buildings. Rescue workers from neighboring Greece and Italy assisted with the efforts.

Shortly after the pope's call for prayers, the Vatican released a condolence telegram sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, to Albanian President Ilir Meta.

Pope Francis, the message said, "invokes blessings of strength upon the emergency personnel in their relief efforts and entrusts the people of Albania to the loving providence of the Almighty."

In his general audience talk, the pope reflected on his Nov. 20-26 visit to Thailand and Japan which, he said, "increased my closeness and affection for these peoples."

Recalling his Nov. 20 meeting with the supreme patriarch of Thailand's Buddhist community, Somdej Phra Maha Muneewong, the pope said he was "continuing on the path of mutual esteem initiated by my predecessors, so that compassion and brotherhood may grow in the world."

He also noted the Catholic Church's presence in the Thailand, particularly in its service to the sick and the witness given by the country's laity, priests, consecrated men and women and bishops.

Pope Francis noted the theme of his subsequent visit to Japan, "Protecting every life," and its significance in a country "that bears the scars of the atomic bombing and is for the spokesman for the whole world of the fundamental right to life and peace."

"To protect life, we must love it, and today the most serious threat in more developed countries is the loss of the sense of living," the pope said.

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Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju

 

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Update: Everyday Heroes: Army officer donates part of liver to save priest's life

IMAGE: CNS photo/courtesy Knights of Columbus

By Andrew Fowler

Father Dennis Callan's health was rapidly declining. His situation was so dire that his dentist refused to even pull a tooth out of fear that the he would bleed to death.

The cause? Advanced cirrhosis of the liver.

A Divine Word missionary, Father Callan was stationed in South Korea, serving as a military chaplain. He would have to leave Korea to return to the United States for treatment.

When he announced to his parishioners in November 2015 that he had to leave for "personal reasons," one parishioner took notice: his friend U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Chris Moore.

Moore and his wife, Heidi, met Father Callan in 2014 at Camp Humphreys. The Moores and Father Callan would share meals together and socialize after Mass, particularly at Knights of Columbus council meetings -- both men were members of Bishop John J. Kaising Council 14223 on the base. Father Callan was a spiritual guide as the Moores welcomed two children into their growing family.

"He was a support during our time in Korea because my wife was new to Catholicism," said Moore, currently stationed at Fort Knox, Kentucky, while his two children and his wife live in Arizona. "Father Dennis was there to guide us and strengthen us in our relationship and help us to get to where we are today."

When Father Callan returned to the U.S., his hepatologist in Chicago told him that he was lucky to have survived the trip from South Korea. His only chance of survival was a liver transplant.

Members of family were tested to see if they could donate, but no one was compatible. By the end of December 2016, Father Callan's health began free-falling.

He began arranging his funeral.

"I decided I did not want to go on this (donor) list," Father Callan said. "I figured, I'm a priest and I would accept whatever the Lord had in mind for me and I did not want to take the opportunity away from another to receive a liver."

Throughout the process, Father Callan and the Moores kept in touch. When Father Callan told the Moores that every option seemed exhausted, they offered to be tested to see if one of them was a compatible donor.

Father Callan was completely shocked at the Moores' offer. Especially because it would not be easy for Chris to donate, due to Army regulations regarding organ donations.

It turned out that navigating these regulations was worth it. Chris was a match.

In May 2017, Moore and Father Callan went in for surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

"We said our 'goodbyes' and I told (the Moores), 'I'll see you on the other side,'" Father Callan said. "The next morning I woke up and I said, 'I feel 100% better already.'"

Father Callan was in surgery for 10 hours and received more than two-and-a-half pounds of his brother Knight's liver. Moore noticed the immediate health differences in his friend when he visited him the day following the surgery.

"We call each other brothers now because we share something in common, our livers," Moore said with a smile. "We share a special bond and he's able to do what he does, continue to be able to do what he wants to do which is minister to people."

The brotherhood between Father Callan and Moore is shown in "Everyday Heroes," a video series produced by the Knights of Columbus. The series showcases ordinary men acting in extraordinary ways, who are strengthened by their Catholic faith and membership in the Knights of Columbus.

"One of the things that I felt very strongly about is that the brotherhood among the members of the Knights of Columbus is important because men need a lot of support in the faith," Father Callan said.

Father Callan and the Moores attended the Warriors to Lourdes pilgrimage -- an international event co-sponsored by the Knights of Columbus along with the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services to bring healing to military personnel and their families at the Marian shrine in France.

When reflecting on this period in his life, Father Callan sees God's providence.

"What we have to realize is that God is present with us," Father Callan said. "God is leading us, guiding us through the many, many things, many trials that we face. God is always present, caring and loving for us in ways that we don't necessarily understand."

Father Callan remains close with the Moores, visiting them at their home in Arizona.

But when apart, the brother Knights still contact each other to talk.

"For me, simply being with Chris or talking with him inspires me and encourages me," Father Callan said. "We are brother Knights in every sense of the word."

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Editor's Note: A video accompanying this story can be found on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qLJtJdGW8Hc. To share your story of an everyday hero with the Knights of Columbus, contact [email protected]

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Bound by shared grief, staff assists families at natural burial ground

IMAGE: CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin

By Andrew Nelson

CONYERS, Ga. (CNS) -- There's the father who regularly visits his buried son with a bag of doughnuts for the staff.

There's the request by a mother for Honey Creek Woodlands staff to tell her buried child "she still loves him" when they pass his final resting place.

Staff members at this natural cemetery know what it means when heartfelt requests come from grieving families. Three of the staff members themselves have family buried among the trees and the grasslands.

"There's something that happens here and it's very transformative," said Elaine Bishoff, who buried her father here.

"People come here, sometimes it happens when we're looking at sites like it did with my own family, and sometimes that happens with the service where they're bracing and they're nervous and they're grieving, it lifts," she told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. "All of a sudden they're smiling and they're relaxed and they start talking like, you know, like they're just talking with their family."

Honey Creek Woodlands in Conyers, 25 miles southeast of Atlanta, is a burial ground for those who desire a simple burial in a wooden box or a shroud. Graves are marked with discreet sandstone markers. The land is owned by the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, a community of more than 40 Trappist monks.

The burial ground is "a quiet and beautiful resting place for people of all faiths, as well as those who have struggled to find faith," states its website.

Bishoff's family was one of the first to bury a loved one at Honey Creek Woodlands. It was October 2008. Her father, Jack Jameson Sr., died in his sleep.

"It is not what I thought. This is not creepy," she remembered about her first visit. Her father loved the outdoors, was humble and would not have been interested in conventional funeral practices.

"I work here, but my heart is here. I fell in love with this," said Bishoff, 58, who spent most of her life working in customer relations for a car dealership. She grew up attending Our Lady of Assumption Church in Brookhaven and graduated from St. Pius X High School in Conyers. Five years after burying her father, she joined Honey Creek Woodlands. Today, she is the senior steward, working with families and staff.

Neil Battles, 29, relies on a tractor, chain saws, shears and pruning tools as part of his job as a caretaker.

In 2012, his father, Mark, died from cancer and was buried in the pine tree forest on the grounds.

Battles started working at Honey Creek Woodlands in 2016. He grew up attending St. John Neumann Church in Lilburn, and St. Matthew Church in Winder.

"I'd go out to visit my dad and it's kind of therapeutic. You have a tendency to block away things, or you tend not to think about certain things because it's kind of a little hard to think about. But then you visit the grave and you remember, him coaching me as a kid in baseball or, you know, just different little memories," Battles said.

He wants to give that experience to others as he prepares for a graveside service or thins out a natural growth of saplings and wild grass.

"That kind of transfers over because you want everybody to get that same experience where they're like, you know, the grave looks good and they're not worried about everything and they can kind of just relax in the setting."

Bishoff's father was buried in the hardwood forest, where oaks, dogwoods and other trees reclaimed the area surrounding his grave. It's about a mile from the office on a gravel road to the towering pine trees, a meadow and the hardwood forest. There's also a hilltop where the Martin Gatins Chapel and its bell tower are located.

Honey Creek, the site's namesake, is crossed with a bridge called the Bridge to Grace, donated and built by a family whose daughter, Catherine Grace, is buried at the woodlands.

For now, about 160 acres have been set aside for burials. The rest of the land is untouched.

The cemetery is part of changing trends of funeral practices. People are choosing to deal with human remains in an environmentally aware, chemical-free manner. The only requirement at Honey Creek is that bodies are laid to rest in a shroud or biodegradable casket.

In 2015, more Americans for the first time chose cremation over traditional funerals, and the option is expected to become increasingly popular. Cremated remains are also buried in biodegradable containers. The scattering of ashes is not allowed.

Honey Creek Woodlands opened on Earth Day 2008. Joe Whittaker was the first caretaker. A statistician by training, he recalled waiting several months before he assisted the first family in burying their loved one. That first year there were about a dozen burials. In late October, 10 burials took place in one week. About 3,000 plots have been sold and since opening there have been about 1,200 burials, he said.

Whittaker last year stepped back to a part-time position. The families he served became "more friends than anything else," he said. At his South Carolina home he etches the sandstone markers families customize to be gravestones.

"We are people trying to help them through a difficult situation."

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Nelson is a staff reporter at The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

 

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Copyright © 2019 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. www.catholicnews.com. All rights reserved. Republishing or redistributing of CNS content, including by framing or similar means without prior permission, is prohibited. You may link to stories on our public site. This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. To request permission for republishing or redistributing of CNS content, please contact permissions at [email protected]