PALM BAY, Fla. (OSV News) – A retired Florida Catholic priest and his sister were killed in a multi-location rampage that also took the life of another man, left two police officers injured and ended with the death of the suspect. Father Robert Hoeffner and his sister, Sally Hoeffner, were found slain at their Palm Bay, Florida, residence on the evening of Jan. 28, as police were investigating a domestic disturbance at another area home that turned deadly. Their car had apparently been stolen by 24-year-old suspect Brandon William Kapas, who loaded the car with a cache of weapons and drove it to a family gathering nearby. Police were called to the home after Kapas became agitated and destructive, and in the course of his flight, Kapas killed his grandfather and injured two police officers before he himself was shot and killed. No motive for has been given. In a statement, Orlando Bishop John Noonan said the diocese is mourning the loss of life and will miss Father Hoeffner’s “grace-filled presence.” Father Hoeffner had celebrated his 50th jubilee in 2023, recalling decades that included becoming a pastor, celebrating Mass on television regularly, and establishing a multicultural parish council at his final assignment. “I’ve had a glorious ride. I’m proud to serve and do wonderful things for wonderful people. I enjoy doing that,” Father Hoeffner said in his jubilee reflection for the diocese. “I’ve spent 50 years doing absolutely incredible things and I am thankful to God for it.”

BALTIMORE (OSV News) – The one-and-only known photograph ever taken of Mother Mary Lange held a place of prominence during a special Jan. 30 Mass celebrated by Archbishop William E. Lori at St. Frances Academy in East Baltimore. Resting at the foot of an altar set up inside the school’s gymnasium, the more than 140-year-old black-and-white image seemed to stare stoically at a congregation of more than 300 that had gathered to celebrate Mother Lange’s recent advancement along the path to canonization. Pope Francis declared the foundress of St. Frances Academy “venerable” June 22, 2023 – recognizing Mother Lange’s heroic virtues. Mother Lange is one of six Black Catholics in the U.S. who are candidates for sainthood, four of whom have been declared “venerable.” Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori, who called St. Frances Academy “holy ground” during his homily, elicited applause when he said the recognition of Mother Lange as venerable is “something of great importance, not only for this school and not only for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, but for the Catholic Church throughout the United States.” St. Frances Academy was founded in 1828 as the first Catholic school in the country to educate Black students. Mother Lange co-founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence one year later as the world’s first sustained women’s religious congregation for Blacks.

WASHINGTON (OSV News) – An upcoming webinar series hosted by a U.S. bishop explores synodality through the prism of Jesus Christ’s words to his disciples at the Last Supper. Bishop Daniel E. Flores of Brownsville, Texas, leads three “John 14 and Synodality” webinars, with the sessions taking place over Zoom Feb. 14 (Ash Wednesday) at 4 p.m. EST, March 6 at 3 p.m. EST and March 19 at 4 p.m. EDT. A separate Jan. 31 webinar titled “Conversation in the Spirit” at 11 a.m. CST features U.S. Jesuit Father David McCallum, executive director of the Discerning Leadership Program in Rome. Participants can obtain more information about and register for the sessions at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ dedicated webpage for the Synod on Synodality at Bishop Flores, who serves as chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine, has shepherded the synodal process in the U.S. Launched by Pope Francis, the first session of the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops organized around the theme “For a Synodal Church: Communion, Participation, Mission,” commonly known as the Synod on Synodality, took place Oct. 4-29, 2023, in Rome. Concluding sessions of the synod will take place in Rome this October.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Ten children from Gaza in need of medical attention arrived in Rome on a military plane late Jan. 29, the first group of young patients who will receive treatment in Italy thanks to the lobbying of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land and negotiations involving the governments of Italy, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. The 10 children and a young man, described as being just over 18 years old, were taken to the Vatican-run Bambino Gesù pediatric hospital for assessment, Vatican News reported. The patients include children seriously injured in the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas as well as chronically ill children who can no longer receive the necessary treatment in Gaza because of the war. Four of the patients will stay at Bambino Gesù while the young man will be treated at St. Camillus Hospital in Rome and the others will be cared for at hospitals in Genoa, Bologna and Florence.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis expressed his hopes that Lunar New Year celebrations would offer opportunities for people to experience warm friendships and to show care. “This coming Feb. 10, in East Asia and various parts of the world, millions of families will celebrate the Lunar New Year,” he said during his greetings after the midday Angelus prayer with visitors in St. Peter’s Square Feb. 4. The holiday is widely celebrated in China, South Korea, Vietnam and countries with a significant number of people from China. “I send them my warm greetings, with the hope that this feast may be an opportunity to experience relationships of affection and gestures of care, which contribute to creating a society of solidarity and fraternity, where every person is recognized and welcomed in his or her inalienable dignity,” he said. “I invite you to pray for peace, for which the world longs so much,” he said.

Performers exhibit a traditional dragon and lion dance to welcome in the Chinese New Year, which begins Feb. 10, during an audience at the Vatican Feb. 2, 2024. The audience included a delegation from the National Federation Italy-China and the Chinese Martial Arts Academy of Vercelli in northern Italy. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

MEXICO CITY (OSV News) – Catholic peace group Pueblo Creyente marched through the colonial city of San Cristóbal de las Casas Jan. 26 to remember the late Bishop Samuel Ruiz Garcia, who promoted a vision of an autochthonous church in the largely Indigenous state of Chiapas. The march also called for an end to the rising violence in Chiapas, where rival drug cartels are disputing territory in the southern Mexican state, prompting entire villages to flee. “It is urgent that the Mexican state implement measures to guarantee the comprehensive protection of the civilian population, including servants of the church and defenders of territory,” Pueblo Creyente (People Who Believe) said in a Jan. 25 statement. Residents of the municipality of Chicomuselo hid in their homes as bullets pierced the walls during a seven-hour gunfight on Jan. 4, which killed 20 people – including two locals, whose relatives were unable to retrieve the bodies – according to a statement from the community. “They’re killing us, they’re forcing us to leave our homes and others to be part of them,” the statement said. “Communities are stuck in the middle of this,” said a priest who works in the area and spoke on condition of anonymity.

DUBLIN (OSV News) – Ireland’s most-senior churchman has hailed an agreement that sees a Catholic take the top political job in Northern Ireland for the first time in its history as an “opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning.” Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, president of the Irish bishops’ conference, made the comments as a power-sharing government was restored Feb. 3, after two years of deadlock. The executive branch is a key plank of a 1998 peace agreement that ended 30 years of bloody sectarian violence, but has struggled to take root with sporadic boycotts from political parties. Michelle O’Neill of the Sinn Féin party is the first Catholic to head the region’s government. Her title is “First Minister.” “The days of second-class citizenship are long gone, and today confirms that they will never come back,” O’Neill, 47, told the legislative assembly upon her election Feb. 3. “This is an assembly for all: Catholic, Protestant and dissenter. … the public rightly demand that we work and deliver together, and also that we build trust and confidence in our ability to collectively do that.” Archbishop Martin told The Irish Catholic newspaper that he felt there was a “sense of relief” from citizens “who are so anxious that we can have appropriate representation to deal with the very pressing problems that we have in the North at this time.”

Calendar of Events

COLUMBUS – Annunciation, Mardi Gras Mambo, Friday, Feb. 9 from 6:30-9:30 p.m. in the Annunciation Gymnasium. Adults only. Dinner and open bar included. To attend purchase a draw down ticket for $100 or $35 silent auction ticket at the door. Details: email

GREENWOOD – St. Francis, Mardi Gras Celebration, Saturday, Feb. 10, from 7 p.m. to midnight at the Leflore County Civic Center (200 Hwy 7). Cost: $40 donation per adult. Event includes New Orleans style buffet served at 8 p.m.; entertainment by DJ Traxx; swing dance contest and more. Attire: mardi gras festive or semi-formal dress. Tickets available at the church office. Details: church office (662) 453-0623.

GREENVILLE – St. Joseph School, Annual Daddy-Daughter Dance, Saturday, Feb. 3 from 6-8 p.m. Community-wide event for PreK-3 through sixth grade. St. Joe School cordially invites dads or special loved ones and their daughters to an evening of good food, music and company. Cost: $50 per couple ($10 per extra). Tickets may be purchased at the school. Details: school office (662) 378-9711.

JACKSON – St. Richard School, Krewe de Cardinal, Friday, Feb. 2 from 7-11 p.m. at The South Warehouse. Details: school office (601) 366-1157.

Theology on Tap, Dates for 2024: Feb. 7 with Bishop Kopacz; March 6 with Father Lincoln Dall; April 10 – Easter celebration. Meetings are on Wednesdays at Martin’s Restaurant Downtown Jackson. Details: Amelia Rizor at (601) 949-6931.

VICKSBURG – Vicksburg Catholic School, Drawdown on River, Sunday, Feb. 18 at 6 p.m. at the Levee Street Warehouse. Enjoy a silent auction, food, drinks and fellowship, in addition to the $20,000 drawdown. Tickets sell out every year – so purchase yours today. Details:

DIOCESE – Office of Catholic Education Monthly Virtual Rosary, Wednesday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. (Link opens at 6:30 p.m. for prayer intentions.) Visit for Zoom link and details.

NATCHEZ – 2nd annual Believe Conference, April 19-21, 2024. Featured speakers are Anne Trufant, Catholic speaker and founder of The Mission on the Mountain; Barbara Heil, Catholic speaker and founder of From His Heart Ministries; and Joanne Moody, minister author, and founder of Agape Freedom Fighters. Cost: $100 for the weekend; $50 for students. Lunch included on Saturday. Details: visit

VICKSBURG – DCYC (Diocesan Catholic Youth Conference), March 1-3 at the Vicksburg Convention Center. All youth in grades 9-12 are invited. Keynote speaker is Doug Tooke and Catholic worship leader, Steven Joubert. Check with your parish youth leader to register.

“SPIRIT OF IRELAND AND SCOTLAND” WITH FATHER O’CONNOR – Join Father David O’Connor on a trip to Ireland and Scotland, June 8-17. Itinerary includes: flight to Dublin, two nights in Belfast, ferry to Scotland, two nights in Glasgow, Inverness and Edinburgh and return flight from Edinburg. Travel in a luxury coach from arrival time until departure, a professional driver/guide, 4-star hotels. Tour highlights include City of Belfast, Titanic, historic and architectural sites, wonderful landscapes and lakes of the Scottish highlands, Scottish food and entertainment. Cost: $4,955 (per person sharing) or $5,950 single. Only ten spots left! For more information/reservations contact Cara Group Travel at (617) 639-0273 or email

IRELAND AND SCOTLAND WITH FATHER AUGUSTINE – Join Father Augustine on a trip to Ireland and Scotland, Sept. 6-18. Trip includes stops in Galway, Our Lady of Knock, Cliffs of Moher, Killarney, Dingle Peninsula, Dublin, Edinburgh and St. Andrew’s Cathedral. Cost: $5,499 – all inclusive, including airfare. To register, contact Proximo Travel at (855) 842-8001 or visit

Cardinal says Vatican is not moving toward accepting gay marriage

By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The Vatican’s affirmation that a priest can give an informal blessing to a gay couple who asks for one is not a first step toward the Catholic Church recognizing same-sex marriages, said Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“Those who say so either have not read the text or have ‘bad blood,’ if you will pardon the expression. The statement clearly and ad nauseam states that these blessings are non-ritualized so that they are not interpreted as a marriage,” the cardinal told the Spanish newspaper ABC in an interview published Dec. 25.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, leaves the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall after a working session of the assembly of the Synod of Bishops with Pope Francis at the Vatican Oct. 6, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The doctrinal dicastery’s document, “Fiducia Supplicans” (“Supplicating Trust”), which was approved by Pope Francis, said that while the church “remains firm” in teaching that marriage is only a life-long union between a man and a woman, in certain circumstances priests can give non-sacramental, non-liturgical blessings to “couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”
Several bishops’ conferences in Africa and elsewhere reacted strongly against the document, which was published Dec. 18, and issued statements forbidding their priests from offering such blessings.
While Cardinal Fernández insisted the document “upholds with great clarity and simplicity the Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality,” he said bishops have a right and duty to advise their priests on the possible use of such blessings.
“What they (African bishops) raise is the inappropriateness of performing blessings that could easily be confused with a legitimization of an irregular union in their regional contexts,” he said.
In addition, he said, several African nations have laws that “penalize with imprisonment the mere fact of declaring oneself gay,” so it would be difficult to imagine a priest in those countries giving a gay couple a blessing.
“In reality,” the cardinal said, “it is up to each local bishop to make this discernment in his diocese or in any case to give further guidance.”
In other situations, Cardinal Fernández said, people reacting negatively to the document simply did not read it.
“The central theme of the document is the value of ‘non-liturgical,’ ‘non-ritualized’ blessings, which are not a marriage, they are not an ‘approval’ or a ratification of anything,” he said. “They are simply the response of a pastor to two people who ask for God’s help. And, in this case, the pastor does not set any conditions.”
Blessing two people who ask for God’s help is not accepting their relationship as a marriage, “nor is it a ratification of the life they lead, nor is it an absolution,” the cardinal said. “It is a simple gesture of pastoral closeness that does not have the same demands that a sacrament has.”
“If a priest gives this kind of simple blessing, he is not a heretic, he is not ratifying anything, nor is he denying the Catholic doctrine on marriage,” Cardinal Fernández said.

Statement from Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz


MOBILE, Ala. (OSV News) – An Alabama Catholic priest known for talking about demonology and exorcism has now been fully returned to the lay state months after he fled the country with a recent Catholic high school graduate. The Archdiocese of Mobile announced in a Jan. 5 statement that it had “received notice that the laicization of Alex Crow is complete, effective immediately” in a decision confirmed by Pope Francis. The archdiocese said Crow initiated the process and “this decision of Pope Francis is final. There is no appeal.” On Nov. 20, the former priest civilly married Taylor Victoria Harrison, 18, a June 2023 graduate of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School with whom he had traveled to Italy in July 2023 after abruptly leaving his assignment as a parochial vicar at Corpus Christi Parish in Mobile, Alabama. Harrison turned 18 in June prior to travel, but her family repeatedly expressed grave concerns their daughter had been groomed by Crow, 30, while she was a minor as he provided pastoral ministry to students. Crow handwrote her a Valentine’s Day love letter where he described himself to the minor (at the time) as “married” to her and indicated plans for the pair to be in Italy together “with our family.” Mobile Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi had suspended Crow’s priestly faculties in late July, ordering him not to present himself as a priest, and in a Jan. 5 statement thanked Pope Francis for his decision.
TUCKAHOE, N.Y. (OSV News) – A beloved Italian saint is speaking to the faithful anew through a series of letters sent directly to their email inboxes. The Saint Pio Foundation has announced the release of “Epistolary,” a collection of 365 letters written by Padre (“Father”) Pio to his spiritual directors and students. A dedicated page on the foundation’s website includes a sign-up form (available at for receiving a weekly PFY with seven letters, one for each day of a given week. The first batch of letters was sent out Jan. 1 by the Tuckahoe, New York-based foundation. Freshly translated into English from the original Italian, the Epistolary represents a fraction of the “thousands and thousands of letters” Padre Pio wrote during his lifetime, Luciano Lamonarca, founder and CEO of the Saint Pio Foundation, told OSV News. Lamonarca said the Epistolary is one of several “gifts” he wanted to give to the Catholic community to mark the foundation’s upcoming 10th anniversary in April. But the gifts he has received from his own devotion to the saint have been life-changing, he added, noting that he and his wife Valentina credit the 2015 birth of their son Sebastian – after losing several children to stillbirth and miscarriages – to the saint’s intercession. Lamonarca told OSV News that Padre Pio’s spiritual wisdom is summarized in one of the saint’s best-known maxims: pray, hope and don’t worry. “He releases his fear, he releases everything (into) God’s grace.”
ST. PAUL, Minn. (OSV News) – A multiyear investigation overseen by the Catholic Church into Archbishop John C. Nienstedt, who resigned from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, has ended with the Vatican finding he acted “imprudently” in several instances but not criminally under canon law, Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda said in a statement Jan. 5. “None of those instances, either standing alone or taken together, were determined to warrant any further investigation or penal sanctions,” Archbishop Hebda said, but Pope Francis determined several administrative actions “are justified.” Among them, Archbishop Nienstedt “may not exercise any public ministries” in the “Province of St. Paul and Minneapolis,” which covers Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota; “may not reside in the Province of St. Paul and Minneapolis”; and “may not exercise ministry in any way outside of his diocese of residence” without permission of the local bishop. Archbishop Nienstedt resigned after criminal and civil charges were brought against the archdiocese in June 2015 for failing to protect children from a former pastor convicted of sexually abusing three minors in his parish. The civil and criminal charges against the archdiocese were dismissed in 2015 and 2016, respectively. In a response to the findings, Archbishop Nienstedt, who lives in Michigan, said he resigned to give the archdiocese “a new beginning” and he has asked the Holy See to clarify the “imprudent” actions he allegedly committed.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Giving to others in need is not enough; people must look those they help in the eyes and be willing to touch their poverty with their hands and hearts, Pope Francis said. Meeting Jan. 5 with members of the Unicoop supermarket cooperative, which is based in Florence, Italy, the pope said Christians must “be close to the people we help.” When hearing confessions, he said, he asks people if they give to the poor, to which people often answer “yes.” The pope said he asks in reply: “And tell me, when you give to the poor, do you look in the eyes of the person, touch their hand, or throw the money there?” He told the group, “Touch, touch poverty, touch,” encouraging them to develop “a heart that touches, to look and to understand.”
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis expressed his condolences and prayers after two bombings in Kerman, Iran, claimed the lives of 84 people and wounded scores more at a memorial for an assassinated Iranian military officer. In a telegram sent on behalf of the pope Jan. 5, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, said the pope “was deeply saddened to learn of the loss of life caused by the recent explosions in Kerman.” “He sends the assurance of his prayers for those who have died and for their grieving families” and expressed “his spiritual solidarity with the injured,” the telegram said. The pope also “invokes upon all the people of Iran, the Almighty’s blessing of wisdom and peace,” it said. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Jan. 3 attack in southern Iran, saying it was caused by two of its members wearing and detonating explosives. The blasts went off outside a cemetery where thousands had gathered for the anniversary of the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in 2020. Soleimani, whose militia force had fought against the Islamic State in Iraq, had been killed in Iraq in 2020 by a U.S. drone strike.

SOKOTO, Nigeria (OSV News) – Gov. Caleb Mutfwang of Nigeria’s Plateau state declared a week of mourning Jan. 1-8 to honor the deaths of at least 200 Christians killed over Christmas by Fulani Muslim herders, targeting Christians in the country. Bishop Matthew Hassan Kukah of Sokoto said the attackers are “children of darkness” and come “from the deepest pit of hell.” The Dec. 23-28 killings also have led to thousands of people being forced to flee their homes. As many as 80 villages in Plateau state were attacked, Christian aid group Release International reported Dec. 30. Bodies continue to be discovered, and attacks are expected to continue, Release International reported. “I urge all citizens to use these days for intense prayers to seek the intervention of the almighty God in defending our territories against wicked men that have risen against us,” Mutfwang said in a video statement released Jan. 2. In a three-page New Year’s message, called “Blood and crucifixion on the Plateau,” a copy of which OSV News obtained, Bishop Kukah strongly condemned the killers as “sons of Satan” who “came to the Plateau again, bearing their gifts of death and destruction.” he said. The Fulani herders “came from the deepest pit of hell” and snatched “the light of the joy of Christmas from thousands of people on the Plateau.”
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Spain (OSV News) – U.S. pilgrims made up the largest international group walking the famous Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in 2023. The Way of St. James welcomed over 32,000 American visitors in a record year for the ancient pilgrimage site. Interest in the Camino de Santiago – a network of pilgrim routes across Europe that lead to the Tomb of Saint James – is greater than ever, with the worldwide number of pilgrims walking the site approaching half a million. Not everyone, however, walks because of religious reasons. According to the statistics published by the pilgrims’ office, 446,035 pilgrims from all over the world arrived in the City of the Apostles last year. With 44% of the pilgrims (almost 200,000) being Spanish, Americans were the most common international visitors (32,063), followed by Italians (28,645) and Germans (24,342). The Portuguese, French, British, Mexicans, South Koreans and Irish were also represented in the top ten, followed by pilgrims from destinations as far as Australia, Brazil and Canada. According to the Pilgrims’ Bureau, 42.6% of arrivals cited “religious reasons,” 4.7% cited “religious and other reasons” in the latest statistics and 22.7% were walking for “non-religious reasons.”
MEXICO CITY (OSV News) – The U.S. Department of State has demanded the release of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa and other imprisoned Nicaraguan religious leaders following a wave of detentions targeting Catholic clergy over the Christmas season. The Jan. 2 statement described Bishop Álvarez and the other religious leaders – including Bishop Isidoro Mora of Siuna – as “unjustly detained” and deplored the conditions in which they were being held. Bishop Álvarez has been detained for more than 500 days, it noted. “Nicaraguan authorities have kept Bishop Álvarez in isolation, blocked independent evaluation of the conditions of his imprisonment, and released staged videos and photographs that only increase concerns about his well-being,” read the statement, signed by State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller. The regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, “continues to impose severe restrictions on religious communities and deny Nicaraguan citizens the ability to freely practice their religions and express their beliefs. We once again call on the Nicaraguan government to release Bishop Rolando Álvarez immediately and without conditions.” In a separate post on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, Miller called Bishop Álvarez’s detention “unconscionable,” adding, “Freedom of belief is a human right.” On Dec. 31, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua urged prayer for the “families and communities that at this moment feel the absence of their priests or are experiencing other types of pain.”

Doctrinal dicastery explains how, when gay couples can be blessed

By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — A Catholic priest can bless a gay or other unmarried couple as long as it is not a formal liturgical blessing and does not give the impression that the Catholic Church is blessing the union as if it were a marriage, the Vatican doctrinal office said.

The request for a blessing can express and nurture “openness to the transcendence, mercy and closeness to God in a thousand concrete circumstances of life, which is no small thing in the world in which we live. It is a seed of the Holy Spirit that must be nurtured, not hindered,” the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith said in a formal declaration published Dec. 18.

The document, “Fiducia Supplicans” (“Supplicating Trust”) was subtitled, “On the pastoral meaning of blessings,” and was approved by Pope Francis during an audience with Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, dicastery prefect, Dec. 18.

Pope Francis shares a laugh with Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, right, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Msgr. Armando Matteo, secretary of the dicastery’s doctrinal section, during a meeting in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Dec. 18, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In his introductory note, Cardinal Fernández said questions about a priest blessing a LGBTQ+ or other unmarried couple had been sent to the doctrinal office repeatedly over the past few years.

The need for a fuller explanation of blessings became clear, he wrote, after Pope Francis responded to the “dubia” or questions of several cardinals in a letter released in early October.

In his letter, the pope insisted marriage is an “exclusive, stable and indissoluble union between a man and a woman, naturally open to conceiving children,” which is why the church “avoids all kinds of rites or sacramentals that could contradict this conviction and imply that it is recognizing as a marriage something that is not.”

At the same time, the pope said, “pastoral prudence must adequately discern if there are forms of blessing, solicited by one or various persons, that don’t transmit a mistaken concept of marriage.”

Cardinal Fernández said the declaration “remains firm on the traditional doctrine of the Church about marriage, not allowing any type of liturgical rite or blessing similar to a liturgical rite that can create confusion,” but it also explores the “pastoral meaning of blessings” in a way that opens “the possibility of blessing couples in irregular situations and same-sex couples without officially validating their status or changing in any way the Church’s perennial teaching on marriage.”

The church “remains firm” in teaching that marriage can be contracted only between one woman and one man, he said, and continues to insist that “rites and prayers that could create confusion” about a marriage and another form of relationship “are inadmissible.”

But in Catholic tradition blessings go well beyond the formal ritual used in marriage and other sacraments.

“Blessings are among the most widespread and evolving sacramentals. Indeed, they lead us to grasp God’s presence in all the events of life and remind us that, even in the use of created things, human beings are invited to seek God, to love him, and to serve him faithfully,” the declaration said. That is why people, meals, rosaries, homes, pets and myriad other things can be and are blessed on various occasions.

“From a strictly liturgical point of view,” the declaration said, “a blessing requires that what is blessed be conformed to God’s will, as expressed in the teachings of the Church,” which is why the then-doctrinal congregation in 2021 excluded the possibility of blessing gay couples.

But, the new document said, Catholics should “avoid the risk of reducing the meaning of blessings” to their formal, liturgical use because that “would lead us to expect the same moral conditions for a simple blessing that are called for in the reception of the sacraments.”

“Indeed, there is the danger that a pastoral gesture that is so beloved and widespread will be subjected to too many moral prerequisites, which, under the claim of control, could overshadow the unconditional power of God’s love that forms the basis for the gesture of blessing,” it said.

A person who asks for God’s blessing, the declaration said, “shows himself to be in need of God’s saving presence in his life and one who asks for a blessing from the Church recognizes the latter as a sacrament of the salvation that God offers.”

The church, it said, should be grateful when people ask for a blessing and should see it as a sign that they know they need God’s help.

“When people ask for a blessing, an exhaustive moral analysis should not be placed as a precondition for conferring it. For, those seeking a blessing should not be required to have prior moral perfection,” it said.

At the same time, the declaration insisted that the Mass is not the proper setting for the less formal forms of blessing that could include the blessing of a gay couple, and it repeated that “it is not appropriate for a diocese, a bishops’ conference” or other church structure to issue a formal blessing prayer or ritual for unwed couples. The blessing also should not be given “in concurrence” with a civil marriage ceremony to avoid appearing as a sort of church blessing of the civil union.

However, it said, a priest or deacon could “join in the prayer of those persons who, although in a union that cannot be compared in any way to a marriage, desire to entrust themselves to the Lord and his mercy, to invoke his help and to be guided to a greater understanding of his plan of love and of truth.”

Dicasterio doctrinal explica cómo y cuándo se puede bendecir a parejas del mismo sexo

Por Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service

CIUDAD DEL VATICANO (CNS) — Un sacerdote católico puede bendecir a una pareja homosexual o a otra pareja no casada siempre que no sea una bendición litúrgica formal y no dé la impresión de que la Iglesia católica está bendiciendo la unión como si fuera un matrimonio, dijo la oficina doctrinal del Vaticano.

La petición de una bendición puede expresar y alimentar “la apertura a la trascendencia, la piedad y la cercanía a Dios en mil circunstancias concretas de la vida, y esto no es poca cosa en el mundo en el que vivimos. Es una semilla del Espíritu Santo que hay que cuidar, no obstaculizar”, afirma el Dicasterio para la Doctrina de la Fe en una declaración formal publicada el 18 de diciembre.

El documento, “Fiducia Supplicans” (“Confianza suplicante”) llevaba por subtítulo “sobre el sentido pastoral de las bendiciones”, y fue aprobado por el Papa Francisco durante una audiencia con el cardenal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefecto del dicasterio, el 18 de diciembre.

Una pareja gay enciende velas votivas en una iglesia católica en Essen, Alemania, el 30 de octubre de 2021. Los expertos están respondiendo a una declaración del Vaticano del 18 de diciembre de 2023 sobre la posibilidad de bendecir a parejas en uniones irregulares y entre personas del mismo sexo sin validar oficialmente su estatus o cambiar de alguna manera la perenne enseñanza de la Iglesia Católica sobre el matrimonio. (Foto de OSV News/Harald Oppitz, KNA)

En su nota introductoria, el cardenal Fernández dijo que las preguntas sobre un sacerdote bendiciendo a un LGBTQ + u otra pareja no casada se habían enviado a la oficina doctrinal en repetidas ocasiones en los últimos años.

La necesidad de una explicación más completa de las bendiciones se hizo evidente, escribió, después de que el Papa Francisco respondiera a las “dubia” o preguntas de varios cardenales en una carta publicada a principios de octubre.

En su carta, el Papa insistió en que el matrimonio es una “unión exclusiva, estable e indisoluble entre un varón y una mujer, naturalmente abierta a engendrar hijos”, razón por la cual la Iglesia “evita todo tipo de rito o de sacramental que pueda contradecir esta convicción y dar a entender que se reconoce como matrimonio algo que no lo es”.

Al mismo tiempo, dijo el Papa, “la prudencia pastoral debe discernir adecuadamente si hay formas de bendición, solicitadas por una o varias personas, que no transmitan una concepción equivocada del matrimonio”.

El padre Christian Olding bendice a una pareja gay durante el servicio de bendición ‘Love Wins’ en la Iglesia de San Martín en Geldern el 6 de mayo de 2021. Los expertos están respondiendo a una declaración del Vaticano del 18 de diciembre de 2023 sobre la posibilidad de bendecir a las parejas en situación irregular y uniones entre personas del mismo sexo sin validar oficialmente su estatus ni cambiar de ninguna manera la perenne enseñanza de la Iglesia Católica sobre el matrimonio. (Foto de OSV News/Rudolf Wichert, KNA)

El cardenal Fernández dijo que la declaración “se mantiene firme en la doctrina tradicional de la Iglesia sobre el matrimonio, no permitiendo ningún tipo de rito litúrgico o bendición similar a un rito litúrgico que pueda causar confusión”, pero también explora el “significado pastoral de las bendiciones” de forma que se abre “la posibilidad de bendecir a las parejas en situaciones irregulares y a parejas del mismo sexo, sin convalidar oficialmente su status ni alterar en modo alguno la enseñanza perenne de la Iglesia sobre el Matrimonio”.

La Iglesia “se mantiene firme” en la enseñanza de que el matrimonio sólo puede contraerse entre una mujer y un hombre, dijo, y sigue insistiendo en que “son inadmisibles ritos y oraciones que puedan crear confusión” sobre un matrimonio y otra forma de relación.

Pero en la tradición católica las bendiciones van mucho más allá del ritual formal utilizado en el matrimonio y otros sacramentos.

“Las bendiciones pueden considerarse entre los sacramentales más difundidos y en continua evolución. Ellas, de hecho, nos llevan a captar la presencia de Dios en todos los acontecimientos de la vida y recuerdan que, incluso cuando utiliza las cosas creadas, el ser humano está invitado a buscar a Dios, a amarle y a servirle fielmente”, dice la declaración. Por eso, las personas, las comidas, los rosarios, las casas, los animales domésticos y muchas otras cosas pueden ser y son bendecidas en diversas ocasiones.

“Desde un punto de vista estrictamente litúrgico, la bendición requiere que aquello que se bendice sea conforme a la voluntad de Dios manifestada en las enseñanzas de la Iglesia”, razón por la cual la entonces congregación doctrinal excluyó en 2021 la posibilidad de bendecir a las parejas homosexuales.

Pero, según el nuevo documento, los católicos deben “evitar el riesgo de reducir el sentido de las bendiciones” a su uso formal y litúrgico, porque eso “nos llevaría a pretender, para una simple bendición, las mismas condiciones morales que se piden para la recepción de los sacramentos”.

“De hecho, existe el peligro que un gesto pastoral, tan querido y difundido, se someta a demasiados requisitos morales previos que, bajo la pretensión de control, podrían eclipsar la fuerza incondicional del amor de Dios en la que se basa el gesto de la bendición”, decía.

Alguien que pide la bendición de Dios, decía la declaración, “se muestra necesitado de la presencia salvífica de Dios en su historia, y quien pide una bendición a la Iglesia reconoce a esta última como sacramento de la salvación que Dios ofrece”.

Crucifijo durante una Misa en la Iglesia de San Pablo Apóstol en la ciudad de Nueva York el 25 de junio de 2022, para los participantes de la Conferencia del Ministerio Católico LGBTQ de extensión. El evento, celebrado en la iglesia y en el campus del Lincoln Center de la Universidad de Fordham los días 24 y 25 de junio, atrajo a 250 inscritos de todo Estados Unidos, Colombia, Italia, España y Uganda. (Foto CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

La Iglesia, decía el documento, debería estar agradecida cuando la gente pide una bendición y debería verlo como un signo de que saben que necesitan la ayuda de Dios.

“Cuando las personas invocan una bendición no se debería someter a un análisis moral exhaustivo como condición previa para poderla conferir. No se les debe pedir una perfección moral previa”, decía.

Al mismo tiempo, la declaración insistía en que la Misa no es el marco apropiado para las formas menos formales de bendición que podrían incluir la bendición de una pareja homosexual, y repetía que “no es conveniente que una Diócesis, una Conferencia Episcopal” u otra estructura eclesiástica emita una oración o ritual formal de bendición para parejas no casadas. La bendición tampoco debe darse “al mismo tiempo” que una ceremonia de matrimonio civil para evitar que parezca una especie de bendición eclesiástica de la unión civil.

Sin embargo, decía, sería posible que un sacerdote o diácono “se una a la oración de aquellas personas que, aunque estén en una unión que en modo alguno puede parangonarse al matrimonio, desean encomendarse al Señor y a su misericordia, invocar su ayuda, dejarse guiar hacia una mayor comprensión de su designio de amor y de vida”.

Papa dice que será enterrado fuera del Vaticano y quiere simplificar exequias papales

CIUDAD DEL VATICANO (CNS) – El Papa Francisco dijo que ha decidido ser enterrado en la Basílica de Santa María la Mayor de Roma en lugar de en la Basílica de San Pedro en el Vaticano y que ha simplificado los ritos para un funeral papal.

En una entrevista concedida el 12 de diciembre a una periodista mexicana para el medio de comunicación N+, el Papa, de buen humor, habló de los planes para su propio funeral, así como de los viajes que aún espera realizar durante su pontificado.

El Papa Francisco habla en esta captura de pantalla de una entrevista con el medio de noticias mexicano N+ el 12 de diciembre de 2023. (Foto CNS/screen grab, N+)

Todavía convaleciente de lo que describió como una bronquitis que le ha afectado desde finales de noviembre — lo que le llevó a cancelar un viaje previsto a los Emiratos Árabes Unidos –, el Papa dijo que se siente “bastante bien” físicamente y que sigue mejorando. A la pregunta de si la gente debería preocuparse por su salud, respondió: “Un poquito, sí. Necesito que recen por mi salud”.

El Papa dijo que ya había discutido los preparativos para un funeral papal con su maestro de ceremonias litúrgicas, el arzobispo Diego Giovanni Ravelli. “Los hemos simplificado bastante”, dijo, y añadió bromeando que “el nuevo ritual lo estrenaré yo”.

Rompiendo con la tradición reciente, el Papa Francisco dijo que ha elegido ser enterrado en la Basílica de Santa María la Mayor por su “gran devoción” a la Virgen Salus Populi Romani (“salud del pueblo romano”). El Santo Padre añadió que visitaba Santa María la Mayor los domingos por la mañana cuando viajaba a Roma antes de convertirse en Papa. Y él reza a menudo ante el icono “Salus Populi Romani” expuesto en la basílica antes y después de sus viajes internacionales para confiar su seguridad a María.

“Como siempre le prometí a la Virgen, ya está preparado el lugar. Quiero ser enterrado en Santa María Mayor”, dijo.

El Papa Francisco apaga las velas de su pastel en su 87 cumpleaños durante una audiencia con niños asistidos por la clínica pediátrica del Vaticano en el Salón Pablo VI el 17 de diciembre de 2023.. (Foto CNS/Medios Vaticanos)

El Papa León XIII, fallecido en 1903, fue el último pontífice que no fue enterrado en la Basílica de San Pedro; su tumba se encuentra en la Basílica de San Juan de Letrán, en Roma. Seis papas están enterrados en Santa María la Mayor; el último en ser enterrado allí fue Clemente IX en 1669.

Preguntado por sus futuros viajes, el Papa dijo que un viaje a Bélgica es “asegurado” y que otros dos viajes, a Polinesia y Argentina, están pendientes.

The pope’s 2023: A year of health challenges, travel and the synod

By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis’ 2023 was a year of important trips made or postponed, a predecessor’s funeral and his own 10th anniversary as pope, a call to the world to act on climate change and a call to the Catholic Church to strengthen its mission by learning “synodality.”

The Argentine pope, who was born Dec. 17, 1936, was to finish the year as an 87-year-old.

As the oldest reigning pope in the last 120 years, Pope Francis’ year was punctuated with hospitalizations, breathing difficulties and ongoing mobility challenges. The last pope to serve at his age was Pope Leo XIII, who died at the age of 93 in 1903.

For Pope Francis, the year began with mourning Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned in 2013 and died Dec. 31, 2022.

Pope Francis spent the week after his death speaking about his predecessor, lauding his “wisdom, tenderness, devotion” and lauding how his theology was a direct result of his faith.

“His explanation of the faith was carried out with the devotion of a man who has surrendered all of himself to God and who, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, sought an ever-greater participation in the mystery of that Jesus who had fascinated him from his youth,” Pope Francis wrote in the introduction to a book published by the Vatican.

Pope Francis presided over his predecessor’s funeral Jan. 5, and preaching about the Gospel rather than giving a eulogy as liturgical norms dictate, he built his homily around four quotations from Pope Benedict.

The first of five foreign trips Pope Francis made in 2023 took him to Congo and then on an ecumenical peace mission to South Sudan. The trip with the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland had been set for July 2022, but was canceled because Pope Francis was experiencing intense pain in his knee.

Even though he was well enough to travel in 2023, the knee continued to be a problem. Photos taken in his residence often showed him using a walker. He would be pushed in a wheelchair to his place when presiding at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica and when greeting people at his general audiences. On days when it was not so painful, he would use a silver cane.

Pope Francis spent nine days in Rome’s Gemelli hospital in June after undergoing a three-hour surgery to repair a hernia. Surgeons also removed several adhesions or bands of scar tissue that had formed after previous surgeries decades ago.

Suffering from a respiratory infection, he also spent four days in March in the suite of rooms the Gemelli reserves for the pope. When he was experiencing respiratory difficulties again in late November, he went to the Gemelli Isola hospital for a CT scan but returned to his Vatican residence the same day. He was given intravenous antibiotics at home but kept many of his appointments, even if he did have an aide read his speeches for him.

The bronchial infection, which made his breathing very labored, forced him to cancel his planned trip to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates in early December for COP28; he would have been the first pope to attend a U.N. climate change summit.

“Are we working for a culture of life or a culture of death?” he asked world leaders in his COP28 message read in Dubai by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state. “To all of you I make this heartfelt appeal: Let us choose life! Let us choose the future!”

Pope Francis signals that hundreds of thousands of young people are not loud enough after he asks them to repeat that there is space for everyone in the church. The pope’s remarks came at the World Youth Day welcome ceremony at Eduardo VII Park in Lisbon, Portugal, Aug. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

The destruction of the environment is “a sin” that not only “greatly endangers all human beings, especially the most vulnerable,” he wrote to the leaders, but it also “threatens to unleash a conflict between generations.”

In anticipation of the conference, Pope Francis in early October released “Laudate Deum” (“Praise God”), a follow-up document to his 2015 encyclical “Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home.”

“We must move beyond the mentality of appearing to be concerned but not having the courage needed to produce substantial changes,” he wrote in “Laudate Deum.”

Making an even more urgent appeal for action than he did with “Laudato Si’,” the pope wrote that COP28 could “represent a change of direction, showing that everything done since 1992 (with the adoption of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change) was in fact serious and worth the effort, or else it will be a great disappointment and jeopardize whatever good has been achieved thus far.”

The two major events Pope Francis was able to participate in were World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal, in August and the long-awaited first assembly of the Synod of Bishops on Synodality in October.

WYD brought more than 1.5 million young people together and, in a letter for local youth day celebrations in November, Pope Francis described it as an “event that surpassed all our expectations. Our meeting in Lisbon was magnificent, a genuine experience of renewal, an explosion of light and joy!”

Throughout his visit to Portugal, in meetings both with young people and with clergy, the pope’s refrain was that in the church there is room for “todos, todos, todos” — “everyone, everyone, everyone.”

“Please, let us not convert the church into a customs office” where only the “just,” “good,” and “properly married” can enter while leaving everyone else outside, he told Portuguese bishops, priests and pastoral workers. “No. The church is not that,” he said, rather it is a place for “righteous and sinners, good and bad, everyone, everyone, everyone.”

Interviewed by Italian television about the Oct. 4-29 assembly of the Synod of Bishops, the pope said, “The result is positive. Everything was discussed with full freedom, and this is a beautiful thing.”

Asked specifically about the assembly’s discussions about welcoming gay Catholics, Pope Francis responded: “When I say ‘everyone, everyone, everyone,’ it’s the people. The church receives people, everyone, and does not ask what you are. Then, within the church, everyone grows and matures in their Christian belonging. It’s true that today it’s a bit fashionable to talk about this. The church receives everyone.”

At his Mass concluding the synod assembly, the pope summarized his key hope for the synod, which will meet again in October 2024: “The Lord will guide us and help us to be a more synodal and missionary church, a church that adores God and serves the women and men of our time, going forth to bring to everyone the consoling joy of the Gospel.”

Just days before the synod opened, Pope Francis created 21 new cardinals from 16 nations, including Cardinal Robert F. Prevost, the Chicago-born prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops, and French Cardinal Christophe Pierre, the nuncio to the United States.

In an interview with Mexican journalist Valentina Alazraki Dec. 12, the pope said he feels “quite well” physically and his health continues to improve. Yet asked if people should be concerned about his health, he responded, “Yes, a little bit, yes. I need them to pray for my health.”

Pope marks 800th anniversary of Nativity scene, asks prayers for Holy Land

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Away in a cave near Greccio, Italy, St. Francis of Assisi had the first Nativity scene – a live one – staged for the faithful on Christmas Eve in 1223.

A 15th-century fresco now decorating the cave inspired the Nativity scene erected in St. Peter’s Square for the 800th anniversary celebrations.

Before the scene was unveiled and the Christmas tree in the square was lighted Dec. 9, Pope Francis met with the more than 100 people involved in erecting the creche, officials from the Rieti Valley, which includes Greccio, and from the little town of Macra, in northern Italy, which donated the silver fir tree.

For St. Francis of Assisi, who had traveled to the Holy Land, “the caves of Greccio reminded him of the landscape of Bethlehem,” the pope said. The saint asked that a donkey and an ox, some hay and a manger be brought to the cave on Christmas Eve and invited other friars and people from the village, “creating a living Nativity scene. Thus, the tradition of the Nativity scene as we understand it was born.”

Remembering Greccio today, the pope said, people should also think of Bethlehem. “And as we contemplate Jesus – God made man, small, poor, defenseless – we cannot but think of the tragedy that the inhabitants of the Holy Land are living, expressing to those brothers and sisters of ours, especially the children and their parents, our closeness and our spiritual support. They are the ones who pay the true price of war.”

Whether the Nativity scene is in St. Peter’s Square, in a church or in one’s home, the pope said, people passing one should remember Jesus’ birth 2,000 years ago and be moved to “silence and prayer in our often so hectic daily lives.”

“Silence to be able to listen to what Jesus tells us from the unique ‘cathedra’ of the manger,” he said. “Prayer to express grateful wonder, tenderness and perhaps the tears that the Nativity scene stirs in us.”

The Nativity scene is unveiled and the Christmas tree is lighted in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Dec. 9, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

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.”