Written by: Sister Josephine Garrett is a Sister of the Holy Family of Nazareth and a licensed counselor


New Year’s celebrations can be a mixed experience.

On one hand, the holidays have brought us opportunities to be renewed in our relationships with family and friends. On the other hand, secular media can present this sort of “new year, new you” approach that may not really jive with our actual experiences.

We can feel this pressure for Jan. 1 to be a miraculous reset; all the struggles and sufferings of the previous year automatically at midnight lose their impact in our lives.

As we head into 2022, I wonder if this pressure is even more profound. We are carrying large individual and communal burdens into the new year.

How do we remain open to God’s desire to make all things new and the inherent invitation in a new year to begin anew, and also be realistic about the fact that at the stroke of midnight our struggles will not automatically diminish?

I believe the answer is by looking to the struggles, sufferings and heavy burdens that we are carrying with us over the finish line of 2021 and finding in them God’s invitation.

Some of us are entering 2022 as COVID-19 long-haulers. Some of us are entering 2022 with more pronounced mental health struggles than before. Some of us need to be renewed in our physical health as our bodies manifest the stresses of the past two years.

Some of us are carrying the painful burdens connected to being Black or brown, American and Catholic, pains that have only increased over the past two years. Some of us, after the pandemic, have reprioritized family life.

Some of us have become disillusioned with the world of “Catholic fame” and this grace-filled disillusionment has allowed us to set our sights back on the primacy of the present moment and context in which we find ourselves as the stuff of our sanctification and having the authority to bring about God’s justice, love and peace.

Some of us have reached new horizons in our prayer and relationship with God, yet some of us have strayed from prayer and into a life of subtle pride and self-sufficiency, which is the fruit of a life lacking prayer.

Is there a thematic invitation to not only begin anew but strive for the newness that is the promise of the kingdom contained in all that we will carry with us into the new year?

I believe there is. We sometimes struggle with the two-world stance that is required of a Catholic. Catholics must stand with a foot in the temporal world and with a foot in eternity.

We cannot place both our feet in whatever matter has garnered our attention over the past two years; be it the pandemic, cries for justice, political strife, family dynamics or whatever it has been for you. We will do ourselves a grave injustice.

If we are to begin anew this year, we must take a proper stance in all that we are facing as individuals and as a community of God’s children.

One foot in the world, which is full of brokenness, and one in eternity, which is the source of constant conversion and renewal, even as we struggle. This renewal is always about bringing about the family of God.

For example, what did the pandemic prove to us? That we are painfully interconnected. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, “No one sins alone. No one is saved alone.”

Likewise, cries for social justice over the past two years have been filled with the same message.

Black or brown skin, and the ethnicities and heritages that are paired with that skin, does not lessen the right of the individual to be a full heir of the kingdom of God and to proclaim to the church, as “servant of God” Sister Thea Bowman once said, “I bring myself, my Black self, all that I am, all that I have, all that I hope to become.”

In humility, I would add; because this is my family; this church is as much my family as the next person’s. We could take many other matters we will carry across the line from 2021 to 2022, and upon reflection, find at their root a matter of the family of God.

Whatever it is you are called to be renewed in with this coming year — physically, mentally or spiritually — let it be for and about encounter. To aid you in increasing your capacity to show up in the family of God, bringing your whole self as a gift to the family of God, come what may; in the midst of struggles and also joys.

We know that it is only through a sincere gift of ourselves that we will know ourselves, and it is only in this dimension of gift, as Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert E. Barron once called it, that the family of God, which we long for, will be built up and realized.

The way we begin anew is to, in all things, in all our resolutions, keep our eyes fixed on the glory of the coming of the Lord and the building up of God’s family in Christ.

Pope Francis greets a family during a meeting with the poor at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, Italy, Nov. 12, 2021. During his Dec. 26 Angelus, the pope said as a “Christmas gift” he had written a letter to families. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on families, but with extra patience and faith, bonds can grow stronger, Pope Francis wrote in a letter released on the feast of the Holy Family.

“Marriage, as a vocation, calls you to steer a tiny boat — wave-tossed yet sturdy, thanks to the reality of the sacrament — across a sometimes stormy sea,” he told couples in the letter published Dec. 26.

Like the disciples who were foundering on the Sea of Galilee, couples must keep their eyes fixed on Jesus, he said. “Only in this way, will you find peace, overcome conflicts and discover solutions to many of your problems. Those problems, of course, will not disappear, but you will be able to see them from a different perspective.”

Reciting the midday Angelus prayer with visitors in St. Peter’s Square Dec. 26, Pope Francis said he had written the letter as a “Christmas gift” to married couples during the celebration of the “Amoris Laetitia Family” Year, a year dedicated to re-reading his 2016 exhortation on marriage and family life.

In his Angelus talk, the pope commented on the day’s Gospel reading about a 12-year-old Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem and making Mary and Joseph frantic.

“In the Gospel, we see that even in the Holy Family things did not all go well: There were unexpected problems, anxiety, suffering. The Holy Family of holy cards does not exist,” he said.

When Mary and Joseph find Jesus in the temple and ask him why he worried them so, he tells them, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Mary and Joseph do not understand, the pope said. “They need time to learn to know their son. That’s the way it is with us as well: Each day, a family needs to learn how to listen to each other to understand each other, to walk together, to face conflicts and difficulties.”

In his letter to families, like in “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis paid tribute to the strength and tenacity of couples as they face real difficulties together on the journey of life.

Like Abraham, called by God to set out to an unknown land, he wrote, with the pandemic “we, too, have experienced uncertainty, loneliness, the loss of loved ones; we, too, have been forced to leave behind our certainties, our ‘comfort zones,’ our familiar ways of doing things and our ambitions, and to work for the welfare of our families and that of society as a whole, which also depends on us and our actions.”

The pandemic lockdowns, quarantines and periods of isolation “meant that there was more time to be together, and this proved a unique opportunity for strengthening communication within families,” the pope said. But that also demanded patience.

“It is not easy to be together all day long, when everyone has to work, study, recreate and rest in the same house,” he said.

When nerves are frazzled, the pope said, try to put the needs of others first and re-read the hymn to love from 1 Corinthians 13 “so that it can inspire your decisions and your actions” and “the time you spend together, far from being a penance, will be become a refuge amid the storms.”

Pope Francis also told married couples, “Don’t be ashamed to kneel together before Jesus in the Eucharist, in order to find a few moments of peace and to look at each other with tenderness and goodness.”

And, for couples whose problems were exacerbated by the pandemic and led to a breakup, Pope Francis said, “I would like them, too, to sense my closeness and my affection.”

But he urged them to be civil to one another, especially in front of their children so that the pain of seeing their parents separate is not made worse by seeing them constantly fighting.

“Children are always a gift,” the pope wrote. “They are thirsty for love, gratitude, esteem and trust.”

Parents must pass on to their children “the joy of realizing that they are God’s children, children of a Father who has always loved them tenderly and who takes them by the hand each new day,” he said. “As they come to know this, your children will grow in faith and trust in God.”

Addressing engaged couples, Pope Francis said he knows the pandemic has been especially hard for those trying to plan a future together.

“In your journey toward marriage,” he told them, “always trust in God’s providence, however limited your means, since at times, difficulties can bring out resources we did not even think we had. Do not hesitate to rely on your families and friends, on the ecclesial community, on your parish, to help you prepare for marriage and family life by learning from those who have already advanced along the path on which you are now setting out.”

The 85-year-old pope also expressed his affection to grandparents, especially those who are feeling isolated or alone. He urged families to make greater efforts to be with them or at least be in touch with them.

MILFORD – Students in the Children’s Faith Formation Program at Saint Patrick Parish in Milford participated in a colorful pageant retelling the Nativity Story, from Jesus’ birth to the Visitation of the Magi.

The event took place on Christmas Eve at the Pike County parish.

Directed by Laurie Barcia, who is also a fifth grade catechist in the Children’s Faith Formation Program, the pageant featured Rachel Swinton and Angelica Barcia as narrators.

Shown in the above photo are, left to right: Joseph Barcia, Paul Barcia, Cassidy Lentoni, Joellen Nielsen, and Dominic Lake.

Pope Francis carries a figurine of the baby Jesus at the conclusion of Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The celebration of Christmas serves as a reminder that God did not reveal his greatness in a grand spectacle, but rather in the “littleness” of a poor, vulnerable child born in a stable in Bethlehem, Pope Francis said.

“Let us be amazed by this scandalous truth,” the pope said in his homily Dec. 24 as he celebrated the nighttime liturgy.

“The one who embraces the universe needs to be held in another’s arms. The one who created the sun needs to be warmed. Tenderness incarnate needs to be coddled. Infinite love has a tiny heart that beats softly,” he said.

The nighttime Mass, which is often referred to as “midnight Mass,” has not been celebrated at midnight at the Vatican since 2009. However, while Italy no longer has a 10 p.m. curfew in force as part of its measures to stem the spread of COVID-19, Pope Francis celebrated the “Christmas Mass at Night” at 7:30 p.m., as he did in 2020.

The pope made his way toward the main altar, processing with hundreds of concelebrants as the sounds of the Christmas hymn, “Noel,” echoed in the basilica.

After the procession, the Mass began with the Christmas proclamation, or “kalenda,”  of Jesus’ birth. The pope then lifted a cloth, revealing a life-sized statue of baby Jesus, which he reverently kissed and blessed with incense.

As the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica rang loudly announcing the birth of Christ, several children made their way to the statue of baby Jesus, placing white flowers around the crib.

In his homily, the pope began by reflecting on the angel’s announcement of Christ’s birth to shepherds and that the sign they were given was to look for “a child, a baby lying in the dire poverty of a manger.”

Notably, he said, the Gospel reading begins by presenting “the first emperor in all his grandeur,” Caesar Augustus, who ordered a census of the whole world. It then immediately recounts the birth of Jesus who was “wrapped in swaddling clothes, with shepherds standing by.”

“That is where God is, in littleness. This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what really matters,” the pope said.

On Christmas, he added, “all is turned upside down: God comes into the world in littleness. His grandeur appears in littleness.”

Pope Francis urged Christians to reflect on how God came into the world and ask themselves if they can “accept God’s way of doing things.” While some “continue to seek grandeur, even in his name,” God “does not seek power and might; he asks for tender love and interior littleness.”

“This is what we should ask Jesus for at Christmas: the grace of littleness,” the pope said. “Jesus asks us to rediscover and value the little things in life. If he is present there, what else do we need? Let us stop pining for a grandeur that is not ours to have. Let us put aside our complaints and our gloomy faces and the greed that never satisfies!”

Continuing his homily, the pope also encouraged those who feel overwhelmed “by the darkness of night” and surrounded “by cold indifference” that can make them feel worthless and unloved.

“Tonight, God answers back,” he said. “Tonight, he tells you: ‘I love you just as you are. Your littleness does not frighten me, your failings do not trouble me. I became little for your sake. To be your God, I became your brother.'”

He also said that accepting the grace of littleness also means embracing Jesus in the poor and less fortunate because they are the “most like Jesus, who was born in poverty.”

The poor, he continued, are not only the ones chosen by God to be present at the birth of his son, but who also lived near Christ’s birthplace.

“That is where Jesus is born,” the pope said. He “is close to them, close to the forgotten ones of the peripheries. He comes where human dignity is put to the test. He comes to ennoble the excluded, and he first reveals himself to them: not to educated and important people, but to poor working people.”

However, he noted, not only the poor were present but also the rich, personified in the presence of the Magi.

“In Bethlehem, rich and poor come together, those who worship, like the Magi, and those who work, like the shepherds. Everything is unified when Jesus is at the center: not our ideas about Jesus, but Jesus himself, the living one,” he said.

Pope Francis called on Christians to return to the origins of faith where “the shepherds and Magi are joined in a fraternity beyond all labels and classifications.”

“Let us look at the Magi who make their pilgrim way, and as a synodal church, a journeying church, let us go to Bethlehem, where God is in man and man in God,” the pope said.

“May God enable us to be a worshipping, poor and fraternal church. That is what is essential. Let us go back to Bethlehem,” he said.

Debris surrounds a destroyed home in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 11, 2021, after a devastating tornado ripped through the town. More than 30 tornadoes were reported across six states late Dec. 10, and early Dec. 11, killing dozens of people and leaving a trail of devastation. (CNS photo/Cheney Orr, Reuters)

Right up through December, extreme weather events and natural disasters of 2021 continued to upend local communities and set agendas for domestic and overseas emergency response efforts at major Catholic aid organizations.

“We had about 85 disasters,” in the United States this past year, said Kim Burgo, vice president for disaster operations for Catholic Charities USA.

“Charities agencies don’t just respond to a disaster because it was declared so by the Federal Emergency Management Agency,” she said, noting that its agencies also respond to local events, like floods, which impact local communities.

Burgo is part of a staff of four monitoring disasters and helping collaborate with local affiliates wherever possible. She said the West Coast wildfires and major storms such as Hurricane Ida were some of the top disaster priorities of the past year, along with floods, tornados and winter storms in the Midwest and the South.

“We do not have unlimited resources, so we have to be careful with the funds we have, but we don’t turn away any disaster that a (local) agency has, and even the smallest ones are important to the local community,” Burgo told Catholic News Service.

Catholic Charities USA supports the local disaster response through financial assistance, technical support and, in the case of a late August landfall of Hurricane Ida in Louisiana, virtual deployment of case managers as a coronavirus surge was complicating logistics.

For Hurricane Ida, Catholic Charities estimates that local agencies assisted 10,000 families through gift cards and meals and over a million pounds of goods.

“We have a ton of relationships with the other disaster organizations which provide different services as well,” Burgo said, noting that the hurricane drew an immediate and sustained response.

Often the response at the local level can last five to seven years, and there are many places in the country that have preexisting economic challenges, “so you end up with a bad hurricane or tornado in a place where they never really recover before the next one comes, and you end up with a constant state of recovery,” she said.

One unusual addition for the 2021 history books was the deadly Surfside condominium collapse near Miami in late June. The 12-story Champlain Towers residential collapse resulted in 98 deaths. It also left many survivors displaced in the subsequent months.

“That was an absolute tragedy, and Catholic Charities was there responding with mental health needs, helping people rebuild their lives and joining a consortium of assistance to help people get their medications and funeral expenses for loved ones met through case management, ” Burgo said.

In states of Washington, Oregon, and California, Catholic Charities is still managing wildfire recovery efforts stemming from 2018 incidents, while new wildfires threatened those same states.

The COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 also prompted disaster response planners to think outside the box, realizing that they couldn’t rely on the model of placing survivors in massive shelters. Instead, they moved to putting fewer people in more shelters or even hotel rooms.

Also, people seeking assistance were not able to walk into Charities outreach offices due to social distancing, so there was a continued move toward distribution sites, drive by distributions and virtual case management programming.

And the second year of the pandemic continued to take an economic toll on communities, as people lost jobs and housing became more scarce and expensive.

“The cost of housing, housing availability, eviction issues. The poor and vulnerable are most at risk, and all of this goes way beyond handing out water: These are the complicated issues you are trying to resolve every day,” Burgo said.

Beyond the American borders, there was an August earthquake in Haiti complicated by a deteriorating political and security situation in that Caribbean nation. A December typhoon hit the Philippines, and summer flooding wreaked havoc in Germany and Belgium, while China, India, Nepal and Indonesia experienced various floods, volcanoes and cyclones.

Kim Pozniak, senior director of global communications at Catholic Relief Services, said that in the past year CRS spent about $380 million on emergency response programming, which accounted for 42% of yearly total expenditures. The funds went toward comprehensive relief and recovery efforts in response to natural and man-made emergencies across 60 countries — benefiting 15.8 million people.

In Central Asia, CRS is anticipating that the 2021 Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the worst drought there in recent memory — compounded by the pandemic’s effects — will likely result in a hunger crisis putting 23 million people in danger of starvation.

“This coincides with the start of the winter lean season when food supplies from harvests are exhausted, and families face shortages even in the best years. But this year the winter threatens extraordinary hardship and widespread loss of life, particularly among young children,” Pozniak told CNS.

In Madagascar, more than 1 million people are struggling with food insecurity following several years of drought that is being attributed to climate change. Carla Fajardo, CRS country representative in Madagascar, said the area is suffering several concurrent crises, including extreme drought, sandstorms, locust invasions and pests. The region not only suffers from a lack of rain, but when it comes, the rain is unpredictable, he noted.

And in the Sahel region of Africa – between the Sahara and the savannas in Sudan – a cycle of unrelenting violence has caused the dislocation of some 2 million people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger.

“The bloodshed and violent displacement will only improve if we rebuild trust between and within communities while also partnering with local leaders to deliver lifesaving care to the 14.4 million people in need,” said Pat Williams, CRS program manager of the Sahel Peace Initiative.

Pozniak said despite the ongoing pandemic, giving to CRS has been strong and that while the lockdowns and restrictions might have changed how people connect, the underlying fundamentals have not changed.

“Generally, our donors are driven by their faith, and they give generously during emergencies — especially when the media coverage of an emergency spikes. We also benefit from generous public and institutional donor funds,” she said.

But even with this support, she fears that “not enough attention or funding is being directed toward the urgent crises that are far from the spotlight and that critical resources have fallen short to meet humanitarian needs in many areas.”

Pope Francis speaks during his general audience in the Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 22, 2021. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – The birth of the son of God in a humble stable, in the presence of both lowly shepherds and majestic Magi, is a “universal event that concerns all of humanity,” Pope Francis said.

During his weekly general audience Dec. 22, the pope said that only through humility can one truly understand God and oneself because it “opens us up to the experience of truth, of authentic joy, of knowing what matters.”

“The Magi may have even been great according to the world’s logic, but they made themselves lowly, humble, and precisely because of this they succeeded in finding Jesus and recognizing him. They accepted the humility of seeking, of setting out on a journey, of asking, of taking a risk, of making a mistake,” he said.

Among those present in the Paul VI audience hall were a group of asylum-seekers who, with the pope’s help, arrived in Italy Dec. 16 from Cyprus under a special humanitarian visa program.

Pope Francis thanked Italian authorities for facilitating their transfer and said those who seek refuge and a better life are not just the concern of the country they arrive in but “for all of humanity.”

“All we need to do is to open one door: the door of the heart,” the pope said. “Let us not forget that this Christmas.”

During the audience, the pope paused his series of talks on St. Joseph to reflect on the coming celebration of Christ’s humble birth in Bethlehem.

“Let’s think (about that),” he said. “The Creator of the universe was not given a place to be born.”

The shepherds, who visited the manger after receiving an announcement of Jesus’ birth by an angel, “personify the poor of Israel, lowly people who interiorly live with the awareness of their own want.”

“Precisely for this reason, they trust more than others in God. They were the first to see the son of God made man, and this encounter changed them deeply,” the pope said.

While little is known of the Magi, he continued, their journey to find Jesus represents those “who have sought God down through the ages, and who set out on a journey to find him.”

“They also represent the rich and powerful, but only those who are not slaves to possessions, who are not ‘possessed’ by the things they believe they possess,” he added.

Despite the vast differences between the shepherds and the Magi, both shared in the joy of Jesus’ birth because their humility led them to see God. The pope said that for Christians, humility “leads us also to the essentials of life, to its truest meaning, to the most trustworthy reason for why life is truly worth living.”

The celebration of Christmas, he added, is a time to invite everyone, especially the poor and those who do not believe in God, to see the “reason for our joy.”

The reason, Pope Francis said, is “knowing that we are loved without any merit, we are always loved first by God, with a love so concrete that he took on flesh and came to live in our midst. This love has a name and a face: Jesus is his name, he is the face of love — this is the foundation of our joy.”

Pope John Paul I walks at the Vatican in 1978. Pope Francis will beatify the late pontiff Sept. 4, 2022, at the Vatican. (CNS file photo/L’Osservatore Romano)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis will beatify Pope John Paul I Sept. 4, 2022, at the Vatican, according to Stefania Falasca, a journalist and vice postulator of the late pope’s sainthood cause.

In October, Pope Francis had signed a decree recognizing a miracle attributed to the intercession of Pope John Paul I, clearing the way for his beatification. At the time, a date for the ceremony was not announced.

Writing Dec. 23 in Avvenire, the daily newspaper owned by the Italian bishops’ conference, Falasca said the date had been set.

Pope John Paul I, an Italian who was born Albino Luciani, served only 33 days as pontiff; he died in the papal apartments Sept. 28, 1978, three weeks shy of his 66th birthday, shocking the world and a church that had just mourned the death of St. Paul VI.

The miracle approved in his cause involved a young girl in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who developed a severe case of acute encephalitis, experienced uncontrollable and life-threatening brain seizures, and eventually entered septic shock.

After doctors told family members her death was “imminent,” the local priest encouraged the family, nurses and others to pray to the late pope for his intercession, according to the website of the Congregation for Saints’ Causes. A panel of experts studying the cause determined there was no scientific explanation for her complete recovery in 2011 and that it could be attributed to the late pope’s intercession.

Although his was one of the shortest papacies in history, Pope John Paul I left a lasting impression on the church that fondly remembers him as “the smiling pope.”

Born in the small Italian mountain town of Canale D’Agordo Oct. 17, 1912, the future pope and his two brothers and one sister lived in poverty and sometimes went to bed hungry.

He was ordained a priest in 1935 and was appointed bishop of Vittorio Veneto in December 1958 by St. John XXIII. More than 10 years later, he was named patriarch of Venice by St. Paul VI and was created a cardinal in 1973.

His surprise election, after St. Paul VI’s death, did not sway him from continuing his humble manner of living, such as rejecting the use of the traditional papal tiara and calling his first Mass as pope the “inauguration” of his papal ministry rather than a coronation.

Pope Francis has named Father Jeffrey J. Walsh, a priest of the Diocese of Scranton, Pennsylvania, as the sixth bishop of the Diocese of Gaylord, Michigan.

He succeeds Bishop Steven J. Raica, who was Gaylord’s bishop from 2014 until 2020 when he was installed to head the Diocese of Birmingham, Alabama. Since June 2020, Bishop Walter A. Hurley, the retired bishop of Grand Rapids, Michigan, has served as apostolic administrator of the Gaylord Diocese.

Bishop-designate Walsh currently serves as pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish and Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, which are both in Carbondale, Pennsylvania.

His appointment was announced Dec. 21 by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, in Washington.

Bishop-designate Walsh’s episcopal ordination and installation will be March 4 at St. Mary Cathedral in Gaylord.

“With gratitude to our Holy Father Pope Francis, and joy in the Lord, I am eager to begin a new chapter in my life of discipleship among the good people of the Diocese of Gaylord!” the 56-year-old bishop-designate said in a statement. “I am also most grateful to God for 27 years of priestly ministry in the Diocese of Scranton.

“I have been inspired and challenged to grow in faith through various diocesan assignments and will forever prayerfully remember all the lay faithful, religious, deacons, priests and bishops with whom and for whom I have served.”

Bishop-designate Walsh acknowledged “the kind support” of Scranton Bishop Joseph C. Bambera and also said, “The most important act of gratitude I can offer is for my parents, Jerome and Nancy (Doud) Walsh. They, as well as my deceased grandparents, have been the most significant formators of my life.”

“I have been blessed with a solid, but by no means ‘perfect,’ family that also includes my two brothers (James and Joseph), two nieces, one nephew, aunts and uncles and many close first cousins,” he added. “Looking forward, I hope to bring a missionary spirit to my episcopal ministry under the mantle of Divine Providence. From ‘Penn’s Woods’ to the land of ‘Great Lakes,’ I trust God’s loving plan.”

In a tweet posted, the appointment was announced at 6 a.m. local time, Bishop Bambera said he and the diocese celebrated the Scranton priest’s appointment “with pride and gratitude to God.”

Bishop Hurley stated, “I warmly welcome him to this diocese, a unique and special region of Michigan, and assure him of our prayers and support as he looks forward to taking on this responsibility and his upcoming ordination and installation in March.”

Born Nov. 29, 1965, in Scranton, Bishop-designate Walsh is a graduate of Scranton Central High School and in 1987 earned a bachelor’s degree in health and human resources from the University of Scranton, which is operated by the Jesuits.

He completed his priestly studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, where he earned a master of divinity degree. He also received a master of arts degree in Christian spirituality from Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1999 and earned a master of social work degree at Marywood University in Scranton in 2010.

He was ordained a priest for the Scranton Diocese by Bishop James C. Timlin at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Scranton June 25, 1994.

Then-Father Walsh’s first assignment after ordination was as assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima Church in Carbondale and at Scranton’s Cathedral of St. Peter.

In July 1999, he was appointed pastor of St. Mary of the Lake Church in Lake Winola, Pennsylvania, and also became director of spiritual and liturgical formation at St. Pius X Seminary in Dalton, Pennsylvania.

From July 2004 to July 2006, he was pastor at Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania, until being named episcopal vicar for the Scranton Diocese’s Eastern pastoral region.

Prior to his current assignment as pastor at two Carbondale parishes, he was administrator at two other parishes and then served as pastor of the Church of St. John in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Pope Francis asked people to celebrate a “real Christmas” by recognizing Jesus in their lives and cultivating peace in their hearts.

Pope Francis speaks as a boy plays during a meeting with children from Italy’s Catholic Action at the Vatican Dec. 18, 2021. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

“What is Christmas? Is it a tree? A statue of a baby with a woman and a man nearby? Yes, it is Jesus, the birth of Jesus,” he said, so “stop for a bit and think of Christmas as a message, a message of peace.”

The pope’s words were aired Dec. 19, the last Sunday of Advent, on Italy’s Canale 5 in the special program, “Francis and the Invisible: The pope encounters the least.”

The program, recorded in the pope’s residence, featured a televised “dialogue” and interview with four people facing serious challenges in their lives: Giovanna, a mother of four who experienced domestic violence and lost her home and job during the COVID-19 pandemic; Maria, who lives in a shelter after sleeping on the streets; Pierdonato, who is serving two life sentences in prison; and Maristella, an 18-year-old student and Girl Scout who was representing all young people who felt isolated and abandoned because of the lockdown and restrictions in place during the pandemic.

Each gave the pope a brief account of the challenges they had been facing as well as their ongoing concerns, doubts and questions about what next steps to take.

For example, Giovanna said she lost her faith the day she and her kids managed to escape a life of poverty and violence and asked, “What can we do to regain our dignity?” and how could she give her children strength.

The pope said the abuse of women by their partners “is almost satanic because it is taking advantage of the weakness of someone who cannot defend herself,” and he also criticized the “humiliating” affront of a parent slapping a child on the face.

When reflecting on the dignity of women who have experienced abuse, the pope said the image that comes to mind is Michelangelo’s Pietà with “Our Lady humiliated before her child — naked, crucified and a miscreant in everyone’s eyes.”

“But she has not lost her dignity and to look at this image during difficult times like yours of humiliation and where you feel you’ve lost your dignity, looking at that image gives us strength,” he said.

He said she was already showing her kids’ strength and said the real problem was finding “a concrete way out — a job, a home and this does not depend only on you,” encouraging her to reach out for help and not be afraid of this moment of crisis, made worse by the pandemic.

He told Giovanna he could see the suffering on her face, but also her dignity, “because you would not be here” if she had none left. “You are on a journey, the danger is to give up” and to see no way out, but “you are still on your feet like Our Lady before the cross.”

Maria described the risks of having no shelter and how that leads to trying to be invisible for safety, but how sad and demeaning it is to feel invisible and hear criticism when people pass by. “Why is society so cruel toward the poor?” she asked the pope.

It is cruelty, he said, “it is the harshest slap in the face for you for society to ignore the problems of others,” perpetuating the culture of indifference which seeks to push aside real problems, such as the lack of housing and employment.

“Indifference is cruel, but do not lose hope, keep walking, keep going, perhaps someone will listen to this and help will arrive, not just material help, but the help of someone who will (touch your) heart and begin to understand the problem,” he said.

Speaking with Pierdonato, who asked whether there was hope for people who wanted to change their lives, the pope said true hope, which comes from God, never disappoints.

“God exists, not in outer space, but next to you, because the way of God is closeness, compassion and tenderness,” he said. God is always with those in prison and those experiencing hardship because his very nature is to be close and a “travel companion,” he added.

But it is also important that the prison system never close the door on hope by depriving people of the chance to change, which is why “the church is against the death penalty, because with death there is no ‘window,’ no hope, it ends a life,” he said.

Responding to Maristella, the pope encouraged her and her generation to continue to seek “real” dialogue and in-person relationships, not just virtual ones, and he assured her it is normal to have doubts, to question or even be angry with God.

The important thing is to have a heart at peace because “an anxious heart cannot seek God, cannot maintain a relationship with God,” so it is important to find serenity, even when experiencing suffering or difficulties, he said.

The Gospel is more than just words, in fact, “I’m worried about preachers who only want to heal a life in crisis with words, words, words. A life in crisis is healed with closeness, compassion, tenderness,” he said.

“You must have the courage to tell the Lord all of your feelings as they come — with the Gospel in hand and a heart at peace,” he added.

The pope concluded by wishing those with him and watching on TV “a real Christmas” with Jesus.

It is OK to celebrate, exchange gifts, eat and be merry, he said, “but do not forget Jesus. Christmas is Jesus who comes, who comes to touch our hearts,” families, homes and lives.

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The percentage of Catholics in the U.S. population in 2021 held steady at 21% in the latest Pew Research Center survey, issued Dec. 14.

The percentage of Protestants, however, dropped, while the percentage of “nones” – those who profess no particular denominational attachment – continued to rise, said the report, “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated.”

The survey results also indicate the proportion of Christians in the U.S. population continues to slide. A decade ago, they constituted 75%, or three out of every four Americans. In the new survey, that percentage is down to 63%, or five out of every eight Americans.

“Christians now outnumber religious ‘nones’ by a ratio of a little more than 2-to-1,” the report said. In 2007, when Pew began asking its current question about religious identity, the ratio was almost 5-to-1, or 78% vs. 16%.

Since 2007, Protestantism has dwindled from 52% of all Americans to 40%, not quite twice the percentage of Catholics today. Within Protestantism, the percentage of those adults who profess evangelical or “born again” Christianity has shrunk by 6%; the number of those who are not evangelical or “born again” also has shrunk by 6%.

The dip in the percentage of Catholics is less pronounced; it was 24% in 2007 and 14 years later is 21%. The Orthodox churches make up about 1% of Americans, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comprises 2%.

That the year-to-year percentage of Catholics held steady is likely a combination of “religious shrinking” — people no longer identifying as Catholic — offset by immigration, said Gregory A. Smith, Pew’s associate director of research, in a Dec. 17 phone interview with Catholic News Service.

“Religious switching” also can come into play. “It is definitely more common earlier in life than later in life,” Smith said, among “people who no longer identify with their childhood religion either as young adults or even before entering adulthood.”

Prayer also has taken a hit since 2007. The percentage of those who said they prayed every day then was 58%; today, it’s 45%.

So too are those who consider themselves “very” religious. Fifty-eight percent of Americans had described themselves that way in 2007. Now, just 41% do. The number of those who feel “somewhat” religious has drifted downward from 28% in 2007 to 25% today. But those who say they’re either “not too” or “not at all” religious has more than doubled over the past decade and a half, from 16% to 33%.

The trend lines maintained themselves on the religiosity question even after Pew switched from a random-digit-dial protocol to find survey respondents, which ended in 2019, to its National Public Opinion Reference Survey, which debuted in 2020.

Smith cautioned against concluding that trend lines are accelerating, but said their progression is unmistakable.

“If I were to just drop down from outer space and (be) given only those two data points, I’d say that the results from 2021 look very similar to the results from 2020,” he said. “But that’s the value of having these long-term trends. We can look over these 14 years, 15 years, and we can see the trend lines moving very consistently in a single direction. We can say, ‘Look, here are the long-term trends.'”

Thirty-five percent of Catholics say they go to Mass at least monthly, with Hispanics outpacing whites, 36% to 33%. But those numbers are dwarfed by the 46% of Protestants who say they attend services at least monthly.

Catholics straddle the halfway mark about how often they pray — 51% say they pray daily — while 48% say religion is very important in their lives. Of this 48%, 54% of Hispanic Catholics say this is true for them, vs. 41% of their white counterparts.

While a combined 29% of those surveyed profess no specific religious identity, the percentage of those who say they’re “nothing in particular” (20%) is more than double the combined percentage of atheists and agnostics (9%).

The Pew survey interviewed 3,937 Americans who responded either on paper or online. Smith said it was part of a larger survey that asked about tech issues and political partisanship, but “these were the only religion questions on that survey.” The margin of error for the entire respondent group is plus or minus 2.1%. Among the 860 Catholics surveyed, the margin of error is plus or minus 4.5%.

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Editor’s Note: The Pew report “About Three-in-Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated” can be found online at https://pewrsr.ch/3F3Ix22.