MENDOTA, Minn. (CNS) – A small article in a Christian magazine caught Bob O’Connell’s eye in 1982. It described a national program that provides Christmas presents to children who have a parent in prison. O’Connell was looking for a way to apply the Gospel message by serving the poor and suffering. “I had been in the charismatic movement … for seven, eight years,” said O’Connell, 78, a member of the Church of St. Peter in Mendota. “I was restless. I was itchy for doing something. I was just kind of bored. ‘OK, I’ve got a full-time job, but when it comes to doing some ministry, something for the Lord, I’m not doing anything.’ So, I thought, ‘What can I do?’” The article described a ministry called Project Angel Tree. It was started by a woman who had been incarcerated herself: Mary Kay Beard of Alabama. She had been hired by an organization called Prison Fellowship and was asked to come up with a Christmas project. She decided to erect Christmas trees at two local shopping malls and attach paper angels with the names of boys and girls who had a parent in prison. On the angels were gift ideas, and Beard coordinated a team of people to deliver gifts to these children of inmates. O’Connell started doing this in the Twin Cities that same year. He has done it every year since, coordinating the program from his Burnsville home. It has expanded to include northern Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and North and South Dakota. This year, Missouri was added to the list.

LANSING, Mich. (CNS) – A Catholic parish in the Diocese of Lansing has filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to protect its right to hire parish employees and staff for its grade school who uphold the tenets of the Catholic faith. The filing follows a July 28 ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court that reinterpreted a state civil rights statute’s definition of sex to include gender identity and sexual orientation without any exemption for religious organizations. Filed Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan-Southern Division, the suit names state Attorney General Dana Nessel, the Department of Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Commission. Becket, a Washington-based religious liberty law firm, is representing the plaintiff, St. Joseph Catholic Church in St. Johns, Michigan. Founded in 1857, it is the only Catholic parish in town. Its elementary school opened in 1924. The state Supreme Court’s “new understanding” of the civil rights statute “would make it illegal for St. Joseph to operate in accordance with the 2,000-year-old teachings of the Catholic Church on marriage and sexuality,” Becket said in a statement. “This threatens the school’s right to hire staff who will faithfully pass on the tenets of the faith to the next generation,” it said.

Bishop Jacinto Vera of Montevideo, Uruguay, who lived in the 1800s, will be beatified, Pope Francis announced in a series of decrees for sainthood causes released Dec. 17, 2022. (CNS photo/Archdiocese of Montevideo)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Decrying what he described as “hostile times” when antisemitism and violence against Christians are on the rise, Pope Francis said a renewed commitment to Catholic-Jewish dialogue is needed. “The path we have traveled together is considerable,” but the work clearly is not done, the pope told members of the Amitié Judéo-Chrétienne de France, a dialogue and education group founded in 1948 by Jules Isaac, a French historian who worked to improve Christian-Jewish relations after World War II and met with Popes Pius XII and John XXIII. “We must give thanks to God” for the progress, the pope said, especially “given the weight of mutual prejudices and the sometimes-painful history that must be acknowledged. The task is not finished, and I encourage you to persevere on the path of dialogue, fraternity and joint initiatives. This beautiful work, which consists in creating bonds, is fragile, always to be resumed and consolidated, especially in these hostile times in which attitudes of closure and rejection of the other are becoming more numerous, including with the worrying reappearance of antisemitism, particularly in Europe, and of violence against Christians.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Celebrating Christmas is important and beautiful, Pope Francis said, but he asked people to spend less on their celebrations this year and donate the savings to help the people of Ukraine. As he has done at his general audiences since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the pope asked pilgrims and visitors Dec. 14 to express their “closeness to the martyred Ukrainian people, persevering in fervent prayer for these brothers and sisters of ours who are suffering so much. Brothers and sisters, I tell you, they are suffering so very, very much in Ukraine,” the pope said. “I want to draw your attention to Christmas, which is coming, and to the festivities,” he said. “It’s beautiful to celebrate Christmas and have parties, but let’s reduce the level of Christmas spending a bit; let’s have a simpler Christmas with more modest gifts.” And, the pope said, “let’s send what we save to the people of Ukraine, who are suffering so much.” People in the country are hungry and cold, he said.

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (CNS) – Uruguay, South America’s most secular country, is poised to get its first homegrown saint. Bishop Jacinto Vera, the first bishop of Montevideo, was declared venerable in 2015 and on Dec. 17 the Vatican announced that he would be beatified, after Pope Francis formally signed off on a miracle attributed to the future saint. Bishop Vera’s path to sainthood not only reflects the country’s history, but also the new path for the church in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay under the stewardship of Pope Francis, an Argentine. “The image of a saint like Jacinto Vera, someone with such important meaning for our country and our history, is of great benefit for Catholics. He walked our country. There is not a place you go where he has not been,” said Father Gabriel González, a professor at the Catholic University of Uruguay who has written extensively about the life and work of Bishop Vera. Jacinto Vera was born at sea in 1813 to parents who set sail from Spain’s Canary Islands with the goal of reaching farmland in Uruguay, which was still a Spanish colony. He gravitated to the church early in life and studied with the Jesuits in neighboring Argentina until his ordination in 1841 as a diocesan priest. As bishop of Montevideo, he invited the Jesuits to return to Uruguay and brought in several congregations of women religious to reestablish order to a church on the fringes of the continent. González said the local church was in disarray, but that changed with Bishop Vera.

YANGON, Myanmar (CNS) – A Christmas of darkness, silence and fear awaits thousands of Christians in camps for internally displaced persons in Myanmar, where carols, decorations and illuminations are banned because of ongoing conflicts. The sounds of gunfire, fighter jets and artillery shelling have replaced those of carols and celebrations in predominantly Christian Kachin, Kayah, Karen and Chin states, reported Thousands of Christians have been forced to take refuge in churches, makeshift camps and in forests following military attacks against civilians. talked to some people in the camps, but, at their request, changed their names to protect their identities. reported that Josephine Pho Mu, 42, said this is the second time since 1988 she has had to flee her home in Kayah state. “I thought we would be temporarily displaced and go back home. But we have been away from home and sheltering at this camp for 19 months,” said Pho Mu, who has taken refuge at a church-run camp in Loikaw, capital of Kayah state, after leaving her village in Demodo township in May 2021. The mother of three said this will be her second Christmas in the camp. “It is a mix of joy and sorrow when Christmas approaches. We are joyful about welcoming Jesus Christ’s birthday, but we are sorrowful as we are in the camp due to the conflict and don’t know when we will be able to return home.”