News Briefs

FORT CALHOUN, Neb. (OSV News) – A Nebraska priest has died after being attacked in the rectory of his parish in the early morning of the Second Sunday of Advent. Father Stephen Gutgsell was found “suffering from injuries sustained during an assault” Dec. 10 at the rectory of St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Fort Calhoun, Nebraska, where he served as pastoral administrator. According to a Dec. 10 press release from the Washington County Sheriff Mike Robinson, the county’s 911 emergency dispatch received an emergency call that day at approximately 5:05 a.m. reporting an attempted break-in at the rectory. Deputies arrived within six minutes and took the suspect into custody while the injured priest was transported to the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, where he later died from his injuries. Robinson told local media he does not believe the death is related to the deceased priest’s 2007 conviction for embezzling more than $125,000 from a former parish, for which he received five years’ probation and was returned to ministry following a successful residential rehabilitation program. Local media reported tributes poured in at a vigil held that Sunday, with parishioners mourning a priest they called a “wonderful person” who devoted himself to others above himself. The priest’s final bulletin message to his flock spoke of St. John the Baptist, their patron, who is “to remind us of what we all should be preparing to receive in the Advent Season” before asking God’s blessing on them and their families “in this Wonderful Season of Grace.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio (OSV News) – Two Ohio dioceses are considering a potential merger, according to a joint letter issued Dec. 11 by Bishop Earl K. Fernandes of the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, and Bishop Paul J. Bradley, apostolic administration of the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio, who said they “have begun very preliminary discussions regarding the potential merger of the dioceses.” The bishops said, “the Apostolic Nunciature has asked the dioceses to work together to consider how different dimensions of the dioceses, including the temporal aspects of life, might be affected by such a proposal.” The move comes a year after a similar attempt was put on hold by former Steubenville Bishop Jeffrey M. Monforton, who admitted he encountered “disappointment and even fear” among faithful regarding the prospect. Now, “while no decision has been made, due diligence is needed so an educated and responsible decision can be discerned in a timely manner,” wrote Bishop Fernandes and Bishop Bradley. “Ultimately the decision is up to the Holy Father,” they wrote. “The work has begun, and as the work continues, updates will be provided.”

OWENSBORO, Ky. (OSV News) – Two years ago over the course of a Friday night Dec. 10-11, a series of tornadoes struck western Kentucky, killing 57 with additional fatalities in Illinois, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri and damaging and destroying several thousand residences as well as nearly 200 commercial buildings. Just one day before area residents officially observed the outbreak’s second anniversary, tornadoes ripped through middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky inflicting another weather disaster on Dec. 9 just weeks before Christmas. Although no Catholic schools or parishes suffered storm damage, six people were killed in Clarksville, Tennessee, and other communities were devastated as well. Laura Miller, faith formation director and office assistant at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and School in Clarksville, told OSV News their buildings escaped damage but “north Clarksville is pretty torn up.” Father Ryan Harpole, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Bowling Green, Kentucky, reflected on their own experience rebuilding following the deadly 2021 tornadoes, saying “we have adapted quite well, and people have moved on, and if anything came out of this it is a message that says there is hope in the future.” Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, Bishop William F. Medley issued a special statement of reflection for the remembrance of the December 2021 tornadoes, saying that while they “permanently changed our communities” they also showed the Catholic Church’s “fast and generous response to those who suffered.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis said he has decided to be buried in Rome’s Basilica of St. Mary Major instead of in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and that he has simplified the rites for a papal funeral. In a Dec. 12 interview with Mexican news outlet N+, the pope, in good humor, discussed plans for his own funeral as well as the trips he still hopes to complete during his pontificate. The pope said he had already discussed preparations for a papal funeral with his master of liturgical ceremonies, Archbishop Diego Giovanni Ravelli. “We simplified them quite a bit,” he said, and jokingly added that “I will premiere the new ritual.” Breaking with recent tradition, Pope Francis said he has chosen to be buried at the Basilica of St. Mary Major because of his “very strong connection” with the church. “The place is already prepared,” he said. Asked about his future travels, the pope said that a trip to Belgium is “certain” and that two other trips, to Polynesia and Argentina, are pending.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The Christmas season is a reminder to Christians that despite hardships, God chose to join himself to humanity and still remains by its side, Pope Francis said. “Christmas is a reminder that God loves us and wants to be with us,” the pope told a group of children at the Vatican Dec. 15 during a meeting with representatives from the Italian Catholic Action movement. The Incarnation, he said, “is a stupendous gift, and it brings with it another: that we may also love one another as brothers and sisters.” He added that such love is needed today when “so many people, so many children suffer because of war.” Later in the day, the pope met with the organizers of a Christmas concert hosted at the Vatican for people in need. Reflecting on the concert’s title, “Christmas Concert with the Poor and for the Poor,” the pope said moving from an attitude of being “for” the poor to one of being “with” the poor is key. “One starts from the ‘for’ but wants to reach the ‘with,’ and this is very Christian,” he said. “God came for us, but how? In what way? By coming to live with us, by even becoming like us.”

An Ukrainian serviceman carries his daughter on his shoulders, while people gather around a Christmas tree in front of the St. Sophia Cathedral, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Dec. 6, 2023. (OSV News photo/Alina Smutko, Reuters)

KHARKIV, Ukraine (OSV News) – When Ukraine’s embattled citizens gather this Christmas, their rich festivities will feel symbolically different – as the festival is celebrated for the first time on Dec. 25, in line with the Western calendar. “People here have long insisted we should be united around a common festival, expressing our faith together and enjoying the same work-free days,” explained Auxiliary Bishop Jan Sobilo from Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv-Zaporizhzhia Diocese. “As we withstand Russia’s attacks, however, this change will also have a political dimension in bringing us closer to Western civilization. Many of those who no longer attend church, believing Christians are always feuding, may well be led back to God by this new united spirit of prayer and celebration,” he said. The bishop spoke to OSV News amid preparations for the long-awaited switch to the Western Christmas, agreed earlier in 2023 by church and government leaders. Amid harsh conditions of war, Ukrainians have shown determination in maintaining their Christmas customs. The great festival of Vigilia, or Christmas Eve, is marked with family gatherings around a sviata vechera, or “holy supper,” incorporating a dozen dishes representing the Twelve Apostles, and ends with the midnight Mass. Homes are decorated with the customary didukh, a sheaf of wheat stalks symbolizing ancestors’ spirits, for whom dishes such as the traditional kutia are left on the table.

WARSAW, Poland (OSV News) – Cardinal Grzegorz Rys of Lodz, chairman of the Committee for Dialogue with Judaism of the Polish bishops’ conference, strongly condemned the incident in which a far-right Polish lawmaker used a fire extinguisher to put out Hanukkah candles in the Sejm, the country’s parliament. “In connection with the incident in the Sejm committed by Mr. MP Grzegorz Braun, who extinguished the Hanukkah candles and declared that he was not ashamed of what he had done, I declare that I am ashamed and apologize to the entire Jewish community in Poland,” Cardinal Rys wrote Dec. 12. Braun, a member of the Confederation party, provoked outrage from members of faith communities and other members of parliament when he used a fire extinguisher to put out Hanukkah candles Dec. 12 during an afternoon event with members of the Jewish community. This is a disgrace,” said Donald Tusk, newly appointed prime minister. “Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich told Reuters by telephone that Braun’s actions were not representative of the country and that he was “embarrassed” by them. “Someone extinguished the Hanukkah candles and a few minutes later we relit them,” Rabbi Schudrich told Reuters. “For thousands of years our enemies have been trying to extinguish us, from the time of the Maccabees right through to Hamas. But our enemies should learn, they cannot extinguish us.”