ROME (CNS) – Pope Francis took over the catechism classes at St. John Vianney parish on the far eastern edge of Rome to inaugurate his “School of Prayer.”

The pope went, unannounced, to the parish after school April 11 and met with about 200 children, Vatican News reported.

Pope Francis recites a special prayer of thanksgiving with about 200 children at St. John Vianney parish on the far eastern edge of Rome, where he went April 11, 2024, to inaugurate his “School of Prayer” initiative in preparation for the Holy Year 2025. He spoke to the children about prayers of thanksgiving and answered their questions. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

He spoke to them about prayer and answered their questions. He also brought them chocolate Easter eggs and rosaries.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization’s section for new evangelization, which is coordinating preparations for the Holy Year 2025, had announced the “School of Prayer” in January.

The archbishop said the project would be like the pope’s “Fridays of Mercy” initiative during the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2015- 2016, when the pope visited people on the “peripheries,” including babies in a neonatal unit, a center for the blind and a housing project to illustrate the corporal works of mercy.

Pope Francis has asked Catholics around the world to observe 2024 as a “year of prayer” in preparation for the Holy Year.

The pope’s lesson for the children focused on the theme of prayers of thanksgiving, the Dicastery for Evangelization said in a statement afterward.

“It is important to say thank you for everything. For example, if you go into someone’s house and you don’t say thank you or may I or hello, is that nice?” he asked. “The first word is ‘thank you.'”

Pope Francis gave each of the children a large folder with his coat of arms on the cover and, inside, a special prayer of thanks composed for the occasion; the prayer thanked God for the gift of life, the gift of parents, the gift of creation and, especially, “the gift of your Son, our brother and savior, friend of the small and the poor.”

“You taught us to call you ‘Father,’ and with your word you call us to live as true sons and daughter, to be brothers and sisters who walk together in the grace of the faith we received with our baptism,” the text continued. “Thank you, Lord, who loves us.”

Pope Francis asked the children if they pray, and one of the youngsters said his family prays before they eat.

“You said something important,” the pope told him. They should all thank the Lord for the food they eat and for giving them families.

Alice, who is 10, asked, “How can I thank the Lord when I’m sick?”

“Even in dark times, we have to thank the Lord because he gives us the patience to tolerate difficulties,” the pope responded. “Let’s say together: ‘Thank you, Lord for giving us the strength to tolerate pain.'”

Sofia, who will receive her first Communion in a few days, said it is hard to thank God when there are wars.

Pope Francis said there is always something to thank God for, and he shared a piece of advice: “Before you go to sleep think, ‘What can I thank the Lord for?’ And give thanks.”

WILKES-BARRE – The faithful of Saint Robert Bellarmine Parish will come together in late April to celebrate the 125th anniversary of Saint Aloysius Church.

The Most Rev. Joseph C. Bambera, Bishop of Scranton, will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving for the 125th anniversary at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday, April 28, 2024. All are invited to attend this special liturgy.

A special 125th anniversary dinner at R & D Memories will follow the Mass.

“It is really a milestone,” Father Richard Cirba, pastor, said. “What we are celebrating is the past, the present, and the hope for the future.”

In order to prepare for the special celebration, the parish hired Robert A. Ritterbeck Painting, Inc., to paint the sanctuary area of the church. Workers recently completed the work just in time for the anniversary celebration.

“Right now, we’re brightening up the sanctuary area of the church behind the altar. The work will take a couple of weeks,” Father Cirba said. “We have a Lenten drive going on to help defray the cost of the painting.”

The faithful of Saint Robert Bellarmine parish have responded generously in the last year to stewardship efforts with the theme “Faith in the Present, Hope for the Future”, indicating to their pastor that they value their church community.

In advance of its 125th anniversary Mass, 42-foot-tall scaffolding has been temporarily put up inside Saint Aloysius Church so that the sanctuary area of the church can be painted by Robert A. Ritterbeck Painting, Inc.

“We are nowhere without the past. We are standing on the shoulders of our ancestors and to be 125 years old, it’s amazing!” Father Cirba added. “We had a school for many years. Many people have been educated through this parish so what we’re celebrating and what we’re hoping for is that we continue to build on what we’ve been given as the torch has been passed.”

Saint Robert Bellarmine Parish – and specifically Saint Aloysius Church – are proud of the vocations to the priesthood and religious life that have been fostered within the parish community.

The parish currently has two seminarians – Andrew McCarroll and Peter Stec – discerning the priesthood. McCarroll is slated to be ordained to the Diaconate in May. Several native sons are already Diocesan priests, including Father Jeffrey Tudgay, Father Andrew Sinnott, Father James Nash, Father Richard Fox and Father John Doris.

“The seeds of a vocation come from within the parish. They come from the people, they come from the community,” Father Cirba added.


Saint Aloysius was formed in 1899 when more than 30 families presented their case for a new parish to Father Richard McAndrew, pastor of Saint Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in the city. The families had been traveling to Saint Mary’s, Saint Leo’s in Ashley, and Saint Charles in Sugar Notch to attend Mass.

Scranton Bishop Michael J. Hoban granted Father McAndrew’s petition and on April 29, 1900, blessed and dedicated the cornerstone for the new church in south Wilkes-Barre.

Father McAndrew guided the new parish until Father Thomas Brehony was appointed pastor by Bishop Hoban on Nov. 4, 1901. Due to Father Brehony’s health, Father John Griffin was appointed assistant pastor in 1903 and later rose to administrator and pastor of the parish.

Rev. Thomas P. Monahan breaks ground for a convent on Saint Aloysius Church property on August 23, 1962. The convent was built to care for the Sisters of Mercy stationed at Saint Aloysius.

Father Daniel McCarthy was appointed the third pastor of the parish in 1913 and began a 32-year era of expansion. By the end of World War I, the parish served the spiritual needs of nearly 450 families and was outgrowing the original church building.

Father McCarthy led the building project, and the present brick, Gothic church was blessed and dedicated on Nov. 24, 1927, by Cardinal Dennis Dougherty, Archbishop of Philadelphia, with more than 200 priests in attendance.

In 1938, Father McCarthy added the rectory, which still stands.

Upon the death of Father McCarthy, Father Thomas Monahan was installed as pastor in 1945. His lasting contributions were the establishment of a parish school in 1948, the establishment of a convent to house the sisters who taught there, and the construction of a school building, which was blessed and dedicated on Aug. 30, 1953.

The original convent quickly became overcrowded and Father Monahan directed the building of a new facility for the Sisters of Mercy who taught at the school. The new convent was dedicated on Aug. 18, 1963.

Father Monahan passed away in 1967, and Bishop J. Carroll McCormick appointed Msgr. Joseph Padden as the new pastor. Parochial activities grew, the parish debt was retired, and the future was bright for the parish until disaster struck five years later.

Flood waters from the Susquehanna River inundated Saint Aloysius Church in July 1972. This photo was taken when water was nearly to the top of the church doors.

On June 22, 1972, the Agnes Flood nearly destroyed the parish complex as the Susquehanna River rose to the second floor of all the parish buildings. For several months, while the church was repaired, the Saint Aloysius congregation celebrated Mass at nearby Baptist Tabernacle Church.

Msgr. Padden directed the renovation of the church, school, convent and rectory with the assistance of federal loans, which were paid in 1992. He retired as pastor in 1982 and passed away on March 19, 1990.

Msgr. Donald McAndrews was appointed the sixth pastor at Saint Aloysius on June 22, 1982, and began a new series of improvements for the parish, which housed 1,800 families at the time.

The original pipe organ was restored, building exteriors were repaired, the rectory was expanded, and the church was made handicap accessible in a project led by a young parishioner, James Post III, and his family.

A major interior renovation of the church began in 1991. The altar, tabernacle, pulpit, and baptismal font were replaced; the interior was repainted; a new electrical and sound system and air conditioning were added; the woodwork and pews were refinished, and the stained glass windows were resealed. On Nov. 27, 1993, Bishop James C. Timlin rededicated Saint Aloysius Church.

In 2010, Saint Aloysius Church joined together with Saint Casimir’s to form the current parish of Saint Robert Bellarmine, which serves the Catholic community of both south Wilkes-Barre and the Hanover Township area. Looking to the tradition of its pastor ancestors, the parish community continues to look to the future; that through its legacy parishioners may continue to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, live as examples to a world in darkness, and be stewards to all in need.

SCRANTON – As more young professionals move into downtown Scranton, Father Jeffrey Tudgay, Pastor of the Cathedral of Saint Peter, wants to ensure faith formation and service opportunities are available to them.

At the same time, he is also hoping to engage more high school students at the second parish he shepherds, Immaculate Conception, in the city’s Hill Section.

To accomplish both tasks – Father Tudgay recently hired a new part-time Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry that will serve both parishes. Kyra Krzywicki has been selected to take on this new role.

Kyra Krzywicki, far left, poses with other young adults following the annual Leave a Mark Mass on Nov. 5, 2023. Krzywicki has been hired to serve as the new Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Immaculate Conception Parishes in Scranton.

“I’m very excited because there is a diverse group of people at these two parishes. The Cathedral has a lot of visitors and tourists who are looking at the Cathedral’s beauty, in addition to parishioners who have been there for years and there are a lot of new families,” Krzywicki said. “At Immaculate Conception, there are a lot of families in the religious education program who are hungry for more and are eager to dive deeper into their faith.”

The new Coordinator of Youth and Young Adult Ministry position is being made possible because of the generous financial support of parishioners through recent stewardship education efforts.

Last year, the Cathedral launched a ‘Cathedral Mission Forward’ initiative and has continued its efforts in 2024 with a ‘Cathedral Mission Renewed’ campaign. Immaculate Conception Parish will also be launching a similiar stewardship program in the near future.

In discussing each campaign with parishioners, Father Tudgay talked about where the parish stood with its finances, discussed the opportunities he saw, and the vision they could create together. That helped many understand the connection between their generosity and the ministries that are available.

“We tried to take a very light approach with it and people responded really well, especially to ‘Cathedral Mission Forward,’” Father Tudgay said. “We were then able to look at what we could then do with the increase in offertory that we saw.”

Krzywicki plans to “start small but dream big.” She is planning projects and programs to help both parish communities grow.

“We have a lot of goals and dreams for these parish communities and I’m also looking forward to hearing what their thoughts are as well – what they’re looking forward to – or if there is something they’ve been hoping for,” Krzywicki explained.

At the Cathedral, Krzywicki plans to continue “First Sunday” events for the young adult ministry that started last year that include celebrating Mass together and enjoying fellowship at a social.

At Immaculate Conception, the ministry focus will likely be a little different, making sure high school students remain involved in the life of the parish.

“It’s an opportunity to build some programming around that and set them up for success when they go to college, to be able to recognize that what they’ve experienced in their parish is something they will experience in campus ministry when they go to college,” Father Tudgay added.

As both parishes continue to grow together in their linkage, both Father Tudgay and Krzywicki are excited about the opportunities that lie ahead.

“We want to have a very joyful atmosphere for parishioners to grow in their faith and I’m really looking forward to being a beacon for that – to hopefully help them grow in their relationship with God, with each other and with their parish community,” Krzywicki said.

HANOVER TOWNSHIP- Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish has always been active in its community, but within the last year, several new ministry efforts have been launched because of the generosity of parishioners.

Due to the success of the parish’s “We Accomplish Great Things Together” initiative in 2023, the Luzerne County parish community has started distributing food to the community, launched a cancer ministry, and increased adult faith formation opportunities.

More than 50 volunteers from Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish came together in late February to create food packages for people in need in the community. The packages were then distributed to more than 150 households in need in the community. (Photos/Exaltation Parish)

“It really is inspirational to be able to witness the outpouring of giving of the people,” Father Richard Cirba, Pastor of Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish, said. “Both young and old. They value the ministry, and they value the mission. You can’t have one without the other.”

On Wednesday, March 27, 2024, the parish held an Easter food distribution in its church parking lot from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Food was distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. On Feb. 25, in a similar fashion, the parish provided more than 150 households with food care packages thanks to the generosity of the parish.

“Since the pandemic, the need is greater and continues to rise. We’ve been fortunate to provide warm meals and food care packages to the community through the support and donations of our parishioners,” Lynn Blazaskie, head of the parish’s service committee, said. “Through these donations, we’ve also been able to provide clothing, jackets, shoes, back-to-school supplies, backpacks, and Christmas gifts to those in need.”

Blazaskie said she is currently working with The Commission on Economic Opportunity (CEO) to start a permanent food pantry at Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish.

Last fall, the service committee at Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish began a cancer ministry. The parish held its first cancer walk in October 2023 in honor of those battling cancer and those that lost their battle to cancer.

“This vision is finally coming to fruition,” she explained. “My next dream is to have a permanent clothing/hygiene program on site, titled Holy Closet, where children and families can shop.”

Father Cirba credits parishioners who willingly increased their giving to help the parish build and enhance the current ministries and service and outreach efforts offered.

“The Increased Offertory Program enables us to pay full cost for any student wishing to attend any of the Diocesan retreats or conferences, like ‘Up and Over’ in the fall or NCYC (National Catholic Youth Conference) in Indianapolis,” Father Cirba said. “We pay for all of that. They don’t have to pay a cent. We’re able to do that because of the increase in offertory.”

Last summer, the parish also started “Wine Down Wednesday” events each month, in which a speaker was invited to come in and talk about their faith.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish parishioners participate in a ‘Wine Down Wednesday’ event on July 19, 2023. Events like this have been made possible due to parishioners’ increased generosity.

“We don’t want things to go by the wayside in the summer, so we held them three times,” the Hanover Township pastor added. “We have food and drink, and we have opportunities to socialize. It has brought together parishioners and even outsiders!”

Prior to the start of the “We Accomplish Great Things Together” initiative, Exaltation of the Holy Cross Parish already had many service-oriented ministries. Together, parishioners volunteered at the Weinberg Food Bank; volunteered at Thanksgiving food drives; adopted families at The Catherine McAuley House in Plymouth for Christmas; visited nursing homes; participated in suicide prevention walks; and provided outreach to the homebound and elderly members of the parish.

“The service committee expanded this past fall to include a cancer ministry. We held our first cancer walk in October in honor of those battling cancer and those that lost their battle to cancer,” Blazaskie said. “This event included raffle baskets and donations; all proceeds benefited local cancer charities. The walk was a huge success and will be an annual event moving forward. This outreach will continue to honor those battling cancer, their families, and caregivers, as well as those we remember.”

As he reflects on the outpouring of generosity from parishioners, Father Cirba often thinks about the Word of God proclaimed at Mass – especially Matthew 25.

“It’s living out the Gospel. We do what we do because we’re living out the Gospel,” he said. “Because we accomplish great things together, we’re able to fulfill the command of Jesus and fulfill the mission through ministry.”

PHILADELPHIA (OSV News) – Philadelphia’s archbishop has called for prayer following a mass shooting at an outdoor gathering in that city marking an Islamic holiday.

Three people were struck by gunfire April 10 as some 1,000 were on hand at a park in West Philadelphia to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the Islamic month of fasting known as Ramadan. The shots sent attendees – which included a number of families with young children – running in all directions, with one girl struck by a police car as she fled.

A person reacts as law enforcement officers secure the area following a shooting at Clara Muhammad Square in West Philadelphia April 10, 2024. Three people were struck by gunfire as some 1,000 were on hand at a park in West Philadelphia to celebrate Eid al-Fitr, which concludes the Islamic month of fasting known as Ramadan. (OSV News photo/Matthew Hatcher, Reuters)

According to Philadelphia Police Commissioner Kevin Bethel, the child’s leg was fractured. There were no fatalities.

One of those shot was a 15-year-old armed male whom Bethel said had been wounded in the shoulder and leg after being engaged by police. The teen — now under arrest along with four adults, including one female — has been taken to the hospital. Five guns have been recovered.

A 22-year-old male sustained a gunshot wound to his stomach; a third victim, a juvenile, suffered injuries to his hands.

The shooting remains under investigation, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Philadelphia field office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms assisting the Philadelphia Police Department.

Archbishop Nelson J. Pérez of Philadelphia issued a statement immediately after the shooting, saying he was “deeply saddened to learn of the gun violence that erupted.”

“On behalf of the bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated religious, and lay faithful of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I extend heartfelt prayers and expressions of solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the Muslim faith community,” he said. “We share a common call with them to be bearers of hope, peace and joy in all things. Today, we share in their pain.”

The archbishop – who is co-convener of the Religious Leaders Council of Greater Philadelphia, which represents more than 2 million people of various faith traditions – asked “all people of the Church of Philadelphia” to join him “in asking God to strengthen and console all those who are suffering.

“May the Almighty pour His mercy upon them and hold them in His loving embrace,” said Archbishop Pérez.

He also urged prayers “for the swift recovery of all those who were injured this afternoon,” adding, “We owe an immeasurable debt of gratitude to all of the first responders who are currently on the scene and who put their lives on the line to protect and serve our communities each day. May God watch over and protect them.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – While intense feelings or drive – passions – are natural, Christians know they must be tamed and channeled toward what is good, Pope Francis said.

The virtue of fortitude, “the most ‘combative’ of the virtues,” helps a person control their passions but also gives them the strength to overcome fear and anxiety when faced with the difficulties of life, the pope told visitors and pilgrims at his weekly general audience April 10.

Pope Francis speaks to pilgrims and visitors gathered for his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican April 10, 2024. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

Continuing his series of talks about virtues, the pope quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions.”

Fortitude “takes the challenge of evil in the world seriously,” he said, and that is increasingly rare “in our comfortable Western world.”

Some people pretend evil does not exist, “that everything is going fine, that human will is not sometimes blind, that dark forces that bring death do not lurk in history,” the pope said. But reading a history book or even the newspaper shows “the atrocities of which we are partly victims and partly perpetrators: wars, violence, slavery, oppression of the poor, wounds that have never healed and continue to bleed.”

“The virtue of fortitude makes us react and cry out an emphatic ‘no’ to evil to all of this,” he said.

Fortitude, he said, helps Christians say “‘no’ to evil and to indifference; ‘yes’ to the journey that helps us make progress in life, and for this one must struggle.”

“A Christian without courage, who does not turn his own strength to good, who does not bother anyone, is a useless Christian,” he said.

At the end of the audience, Pope Francis asked people to pray for Ukraine and Palestine and Israel. “May the Lord grant us peace. War is everywhere,” he said. “Do not forget Myanmar,” where the military staged a coup in 2021 and fighting has continued since then. “Let us ask the Lord for peace and not forget these brothers and sisters who are suffering in these places of war.”

(OSV News) – Participants in the National Eucharistic Congress and related National Eucharistic Pilgrimage now have opportunities to receive plenary indulgences, Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, announced April 9.

“It is with gratitude to the Holy Father that we receive his Apostolic Blessing upon the participants in the National Eucharistic Congress, and for the opportunity for Catholics in our country to obtain a plenary indulgence by participating in the events of the Eucharistic Revival,” he said in a USCCB statement.

This is an updated map showing the four routes of the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage to the National Eucharistic Congress in 2024. Pilgrims traveling in “Eucharistic caravans” on all four routes will begin their journeys with Pentecost weekend celebrations May 17-18, 2024, leaving May 19. They will all converge on Indianapolis July 16, 2024, the day before the five-day Congress opens. (OSV News illustration/courtesy National Eucharistic Congress)

According to the statement, Archbishop Broglio, who also leads the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, had requested that a plenary indulgence be available to Catholics who participate in the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and that “he or another prelate be designated to impart the Apostolic Blessing with a Plenary Indulgence” to the faithful joining the National Eucharistic Congress.

The requests were granted in two separate decrees by the Apostolic Penitentiary, an office with the church’s central administrative body known as the Roman Curia, which grants the use of indulgences “as expressions of divine mercy,” the statement said. Both decrees were approved by Pope Francis.

The congress and preceding pilgrimage are efforts of the National Eucharistic Revival, a three-year initiative of the U.S. bishops that began in 2022 to inspire greater understanding of and love for Jesus in the Eucharist. Held in Indianapolis July 17-21 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the congress aims to bring together tens of thousands of Catholics for liturgies, devotions and well-known Catholic speakers.

Beginning the weekend of May 17-18, 24 young adults in four groups are traveling thousands of miles to the congress from starting points in California, Connecticut, Minnesota and Texas. Pilgrims in this National Eucharistic Pilgrimage plan to travel — often by foot — with the Eucharist in a monstrance, with stops along the routes for Mass and Eucharistic adoration at local parishes and national shrines. The “perpetual pilgrims” anticipate thousands of Catholics from across the country will join them at pilgrimage events or journey with them for segments of the routes.

Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, chair of the board of directors of the National Eucharistic Congress, told OSV News that the “tradition of giving an indulgence for pilgrimages and important celebrations is ancient.”

“We are grateful to the Holy Father through the Apostolic Penitentiary that offers this blessing to those who are seeking to grow in greater purity of heart through the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage and Congress,” he said. “These events will be great moments of conversion which this indulgence points to as we seek to be free from the effects of our sins. We are grateful for the Holy Father’s blessing on these events.

He added, “Pope Francis himself said that (the) ‘National Eucharistic Congress marks a significant moment in the life of the Church in the United States’ and he prayed that the National Eucharistic Congress would guide men and women throughout our country to the Lord who, by his presence among us, rekindles hope and renews life.”

According to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “Indulgences are the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. The faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains the indulgence under prescribed conditions for either himself or the departed. Indulgences are granted through the ministry of the Church which, as the dispenser of the grace of redemption, distributes the treasury of the merits of Christ and the Saints.”

One may obtain indulgences for other people, but can only apply them to the souls in purgatory. One may also obtain the indulgence for oneself. But one cannot apply an indulgence to another living person; that person (unlike someone in purgatory) can still obtain one for himself or herself.

The plenary indulgence for National Eucharistic Pilgrimage is granted to anyone who participates in the pilgrimage between May 17 and July 16, as well as to elders, people with infirmities and “all those who cannot leave their homes for a serious reason and who participate in spirit with the National Eucharistic Pilgrimage, uniting their prayers, pains, or inconveniences with Christ and the pilgrimage,” the USCCB statement said. To receive the indulgence, an individual must fulfill the usual conditions: sacramental confession, Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father.

In granting the indulgence, the Apostolic Penitentiary requests that all priests with appropriate faculties “present themselves willingly and generously in administering the Sacrament of Penance” to pilgrimage participants, according to the statement.

The second decree of the papal blessing with plenary indulgence for the National Eucharistic Congress empowers Archbishop Broglio or another prelate assigned by him to impart it, following Mass, to the faithful participating in the congress. As is the case with the previous indulgence, Catholics must be truly repentant of their sins, be motivated by charity, and meet the usual conditions of sacramental confession, Communion and prayer for the intentions of the Holy Father.

However, Catholics who “due to reasonable circumstances and with pious intention” cannot be physically at the congress may also receive the indulgence if they have participated in Mass and received the blessing through media communications.

“Through the efforts of the revival over the last two years, we have been building up to the pilgrimage and congress that will offer Catholics a chance to experience a profound, personal revival of faith in the Eucharist,” said Archbishop Broglio. “Pope Francis continues to encourage and support us as we seek to share Christ’s love with a world that is desperately in need of Him.”

The National Eucharistic Revival continues after the congress through 2025 with a “Year of Missionary Sending.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Eight people united in their anguish carried into the papal library posters bearing the faces of their loved ones who are held in captivity by Hamas.

The father, mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, brother or twin sister of various Israeli hostages met with Pope Francis for just under an hour April 8, six months after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas in which some 240 people were kidnapped and taken to Gaza.

Pope Francis speaks with the family members of Israeli hostages held in captivity by Hamas during a meeting at the Vatican April 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Vatican News reported that among those who met with the pope was Bezalel Shnaider, the aunt of Shiri Bibas – an Israeli mother taken hostage along with her two sons, 4-year-old Ariel and 9-month-old Kfir, the youngest hostage taken in the Oct. 7 attacks.

In an edited video of the meeting posted on X by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Pope Francis touched his hand to a poster with images of the children to bless them.

The video also showed Amit Nimrodi giving Pope Francis a necklace bearing the image of a house with a heart inside, a symbol of support for the hostages, and he told the pope that he began growing out his now-lengthy white beard when his son was taken hostage since he believes his son, an Israeli soldier, is also growing out his beard in captivity.

Gal Gilboa-Dalal, another member of the delegation, survived the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on a music festival in Re’im, Israel, but his brother, 22-year-old Guy, was taken prisoner by Hamas. Li-Yam Berger attended the audience in support of her twin sister, Agam, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier, who was kidnapped during an attack military base in Nahal Oz, Israel, Oct. 7.

The delegation was scheduled to travel through Italy, meeting with government representatives and members of the Italian Jewish community.

In November Pope Francis had met at the Vatican with 12 relatives of 14 Israelis held hostage by Hamas and, separately, with 10 Palestinians whose family members were suffering under the Israeli siege of Gaza. The Vatican press office insisted the meetings were “of an exclusively humanitarian nature.”

VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Being a Christian means defending human dignity and that includes opposing abortion, the death penalty, gender transition surgery, war, sexual abuse and human trafficking, the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith said in a new document. 

“We cannot separate faith from the defense of human dignity, evangelization from the promotion of a dignified life and spirituality from a commitment to the dignity of every human being,” Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, dicastery prefect, wrote in the document’s opening section.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, holds up a copy of the dicastery’s declaration, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”) on human dignity during a news conference at the Vatican press office April 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

The declaration, “Dignitas Infinita” (“Infinite Dignity”), was released at the Vatican April 8.

In the opening section, Cardinal Fernández confirmed reports that a declaration on human dignity and bioethical issues — like abortion, euthanasia and surrogacy – was approved by members of the dicastery in mid-2023 but Pope Francis asked the dicastery to make additions to “highlight topics closely connected to the theme of dignity, such as poverty, the situation of migrants, violence against women, human trafficking, war and other themes.”

In February the cardinals and bishops who are members of the dicastery approved the updated draft of the document, and in late March Pope Francis gave his approval and ordered its publication, Cardinal Fernández said.

With its five years of preparation, he wrote, “the document before us reflects the gravity and centrality of the theme of dignity in Christian thought.”

The declaration noted that the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World also listed attacks on human dignity as ranging from abortion and euthanasia to “subhuman living conditions” and “degrading working conditions.”

Members of the doctrinal dicastery included the death penalty among violations of “the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances” and called for the respect of the dignity of people who are incarcerated.

The declaration denounced discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and particularly situations in which people are “imprisoned, tortured and even deprived of the good of life solely because of their sexual orientation.”

But it also condemned “gender theory” as “extremely dangerous since it cancels differences in its claim to make everyone equal.”

Gender theory, it said, tries “to deny the greatest possible difference that exists between living beings: sexual difference.”

The Catholic Church, the declaration said, teaches that “human life in all its dimensions, both physical and spiritual, is a gift from God. This gift is to be accepted with gratitude and placed at the service of the good.”

Quoting Pope Francis’ exhortation “Amoris Laetitia,” the declaration said gender ideology “envisages a society without sexual differences, thereby eliminating the anthropological basis of the family.”

Dicastery members said it is true that there is a difference between biological sex and the roles and behaviors that a given society or culture assigns to a male or female, but the fact that some of those notions of what it means to be a woman or a man are culturally influenced, does not mean there are no differences between biological males and biological females.

“Therefore,” they said, “all attempts to obscure reference to the ineliminable sexual difference between man and woman are to be rejected.”

Again quoting Pope Francis’ exhortation, the declaration said, “We cannot separate the masculine and the feminine from God’s work of creation, which is prior to all our decisions and experiences, and where biological elements exist which are impossible to ignore.”

“Any sex-change intervention, as a rule, risks threatening the unique dignity the person has received from the moment of conception,” it said. However, the declaration clarified that “this is not to exclude the possibility that a person with genital abnormalities that are already evident at birth or that develop later may choose to receive the assistance of healthcare professionals to resolve these abnormalities.”

Members of the dicastery also warned about the implications of changing language about human dignity, citing for example those who propose the expressions “personal dignity” or “the rights of the person” instead of “human dignity.”

In many cases, they said, the proposal understands “a ‘person’ to be only ‘one who is capable of reasoning.’ They then argue that dignity and rights are deduced from the individual’s capacity for knowledge and freedom, which not all humans possess. Thus, according to them, the unborn child would not have personal dignity, nor would the older person who is dependent upon others, nor would an individual with mental disabilities.”

The Catholic Church, on the contrary, “insists that the dignity of every human person, precisely because it is intrinsic, remains in all circumstances.”

The acceptance of abortion, it said, “is a telling sign of an extremely dangerous crisis of the moral sense, which is becoming more and more incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, even when the fundamental right to life is at stake.”

“Procured abortion is the deliberate and direct killing, by whatever means it is carried out, of a human being in the initial phase of his or her existence, extending from conception to birth,” it said.

The document also repeated Pope Francis’ call for a global ban on surrogacy, which, he said, is “a grave violation of the dignity of the woman and the child, based on the exploitation of situations of the mother’s material needs.”

Surrogacy, it said, transforms a couple’s legitimate desire to have a child into “a ‘right to a child’ that fails to respect the dignity of that child as the recipient of the gift of life.”

Extreme poverty, the marginalization of people with disabilities, violent online attacks and war also violate human dignity, the document said.

While recognizing the right of nations to defend themselves against an aggressor, the document insisted armed conflicts “will not solve problems but only increase them. This point is even more critical in our time when it has become commonplace for so many innocent civilians to perish beyond the confines of a battlefield.”

On the issue of migrants and refugees, the dicastery members said that while “no one will ever openly deny that they are human beings,” many migration policies and popular attitudes toward migrants “can show that we consider them less worthy, less important, less human.”

The promotion of euthanasia and assisted suicide, it said, “utilizes a mistaken understanding of human dignity to turn the concept of dignity against life itself.”

The declaration said, “Certainly, the dignity of those who are critically or terminally ill calls for all suitable and necessary efforts to alleviate their suffering through appropriate palliative care and by avoiding aggressive treatments or disproportionate medical procedures,” but it also insisted, “suffering does not cause the sick to lose their dignity, which is intrinsically and inalienably their own.”

(OSV News) – Wearing scrubs en route to the hospital to begin her day, a health care specialist was asked how much she knew about Caitlin Clark, the University of Iowa basketball superstar who has led her Hawkeye teammates — and by extension, all of “Hawkeye Nation” — to almost unprecedented acclaim in women’s basketball.

Not akin to assessing athletes and their acumen, she quickly and succinctly summarized Clark’s entrenchment in women’s basketball.

Iowa Hawkeyes guard Caitlin Clark (22) controls the ball against Connecticut Huskies guard Nika Muhl (10) in the Final Four of the women’s 2024 NCAA Tournament at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse in Cleveland April 5, 2024. The Hawkeyes beat the Huskies to advance to the women’s NCAA tournament national championship game April 6 against undefeated South Carolina. Clark graduated in 2020 from Dowling Catholic High School in West Des Moines, Iowa. (OSV News photo/Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)

“That basketball that she dribbles and shoots and passes serves as a great metaphor for Caitlin Clark,” said the nurse. “The basketball is round, just like the world. And right now, Caitlin Clark has the world by her fingertips.”

That Clark has managed to permeate both the zealous and casual sports fan provides a testament to the level of her national impact at the young age of 22.

At this point, it’s an arduous task to cover new ground when it comes to Clark, a lifelong and reportedly devoted Catholic who attended St. Francis of Assisi parochial school in West Des Moines, Iowa, from kindergarten through eighth grade, and then spent four years at nearby Dowling Catholic High School.

Local reporters from Clark’s hometown have been sharing her exploits since the end of grade school. Clark wasn’t even a high school junior before national publications began pegging her as a can’t-miss collegiate standout. By the time she was a senior, the words “Caitlin Clark” had soared through the internet like an out-of-control locomotive with no definitive destination.

Those who have known Clark, however, said they never noticed any apparent change in her affable, comfortable, confident personality when early daily publicity — and subsequent almost-ridiculous national coverage last year and, in particular, the past few months — threatened to scrutinize every move Clark made both on and off the basketball court.

“She’s handled it as well as any 21- or 22-year-old could,” said Kristin Meyer, her high school basketball coach at Dowling, who somehow manages to cheerfully return countless phone calls from those researching Clark’s star-studded scholastic career.

“Her support system starts with her family. She doesn’t get caught up in fame or the business aspect,” Meyer said. “She was like that in high school. She didn’t look to seek attention. She didn’t spend much time on social media. She’s grounded. Humble.”

When Clark played in grade school, Meyer immediately noticed a “different type” of player. Clark’s improvement quickly skyrocketed, rising to uncommon heights.

To communally celebrate their 2020 alumna, the Dowling Catholic student council rented out a local theater April 1 to watch Clark in the Elite Eight that night. They weren’t disappointed after she scored 41 points and threaded 12 assists in a 94-87 win over Louisiana State University that earned a trip to the Final Four.

“It’s incredible,” said Meyer. “It’s still surreal … the level of notoriety to women’s basketball. It’s not all about Caitlin Clark, of course, but she is a part of it. As terrific a player as she was in high school, I can’t say I expected this level of success.

“Her court vision. Her understanding. I haven’t seen a higher IQ,” Meyer continued. “She’s fun to watch. She’s so consistent. Scores 30 or 40 against great teams. It’s an art. She can make it look effortless.”

Like Meyer, one of Clark’s grade-school mentors at St. Francis — sixth-grade math and science teacher Jill Westholm — recalls Clark’s kind, easygoing disposition as a youngster and has witnessed her former pupil’s ability to remain stable despite unlimited attention from fans, media and even curious bystanders who can’t quite make sense of Caitlin-mania.

“It’s so crazy to me to see her in this superstar world,” Westholm told OSV News. “The same Caitlin you see today is the same Caitlin who walked the halls as a 10-, 12- and 14-year-old. She’s the Caitlin Clark who is very smart. Intelligent. Very driven. The Caitlin Clark who never gave less than her best. The Caitlin Clark who was and is very loyal to her friends. The Caitlin Clark who, even in middle school, had their backs.”

A few months ago, Westholm and a few friends decided to purchase tickets to the NCAA women’s Final Four April 5-6 in Cleveland.

Figuring — correctly, as it turned out — that ticket prices could become unreasonable as the event approached, Westholm and her buds figured they were in win-win mode. The “worst” possibility would be sitting back and watching four great programs vie for the right to compete in the NCAA final.

The best scenario, however, was obvious.

“We gambled on Caitlin being there,” said Westholm. “We crossed our fingers and said some prayers.”

The prayers were answered. On April 5, Iowa met the University of Connecticut on the court in the Final Four, and Clark led the Hawkeyes’ rally for a 71-69 win over the Huskies. Iowa headed to the NCAA championship April 7 against undefeated South Carolina. The Gamecocks beat Iowa 87-75 for the national championship and completed a perfect season.

In an interview days before the final, Westholm predicted that regardless of Iowa’s fate, Clark would either either emerge eternally grateful for becoming a national champion, or quickly bounce back from any disappointment and recognize that she had been blessed to even be on the precipice of something so unique.

“She will rely on her faith,” said Westholm. “Her faith has always been important to her, and that’s real. Her whole family lives out their faith. Caitlin doesn’t reach her stardom without her family background.”

Westholm was referring to Clark’s parents, Anne and Brent, and her two brothers, Blake and Colin. Along with her siblings, Anne graduated from Dowling Catholic and her father, Bob Nizzi, coached football there.

Before graduating from Dowling in 2019, Blake became and remains involved with a club called Ut Fidem, Latin for “keep the faith.” Having experienced a Kairos retreat as a junior, Caitlin joined Ut Fidem as a senior.

The group’s focus, according to Dowling’s website, “strives to develop high school students into intentional disciples who will keep the faith for the rest of their lives, and especially through college” and supports students via weekly small groups of five or six led by adult faith mentors.

Students learn how to “defend their Catholic faith, and develop deep, personal relationships with Jesus Christ . . . grow their devotion to personal prayer, the sacramental life, understanding of church teachings, and enter into the lifestyle of an on-fire Catholic” and better understand how to discern the question, “Why am I Catholic?”

Using some of the tools she learned in grade school and high school and benefiting from a close, faith-sharing family, Clark recently started the nonprofit Caitlin Clark Foundation — described as a mission to “uplift and improve the lives of youth and their communities through education, nutrition and sport.”

Last November, Caitlin partnered with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Iowa and, with help from Nike, personally donated close to 100 hoodies, winter gloves and hats to help keep youngsters warm this past winter. Along with a sizable personal monetary donation, she also donated 57 basketballs, 15 footballs, 12 soccer balls and 15 jump ropes to the Boys & Girls Club.

“She uses her gifts to give back,” said Meyer. “She’s not bigger than the game of basketball, but she knows she has the capacity to help other people and is enthusiastic about doing as much as she can.”

Although it’s been argued that it’s actually her eye-popping passing ability that has separated her from former and current greats, Clark’s ascent from a consistently great scorer to tallying the most points in the history of college basketball didn’t happen out of nowhere.

From the time Clark decided to attend Iowa, the nation’s top coaches held their breath and readied themselves for a steady dose of nightly wonderment and more-than-occasional ESPN highlights.

No coach watched Clark more intently than Muffet McGraw.

The legendary Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer at the University of Notre Dame who retired in 2020 after an incredible career that included 936 total victories, a .762 winning percentage, nine trips to the Final Four, seven finals and two NCAA championships came within a whisker of coaching Clark.

After a painstaking decision process, however, Clark changed her mind at the last minute and chose Iowa black and gold over Irish blue and gold. Clark has gone on record as describing the phone call to McGraw as excruciating and lauds the coach for how she handled the disappointment with gentleness, compassion and understanding.

Not a person who dishes out unwarranted praise, McGraw, Notre Dame’s women’s basketball coach for 33 years, effusively commended Clark for helping elevate women’s basketball to its highest popularity ever among both the young and old, as indicated by the more than 12 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Iowa-LSU classic.

“I’ve never seen anyone like her,” McGraw told OSV News. “She is a phenomenal offensive player. She has confidence that never wavers. She’s fearless, relentless, competitive, driven … all the things that you want in a basketball player.

“And she’s also unselfish. Yes, she takes a lot of shots, but she also led the nation in assists last year, and I’m sure she’s in the top five this year. So she’s somebody that really knows how to get her team involved. She gets them to play at a higher level. She just has that charisma and that leadership that allows the people around her to thrive.”

Superstars sometimes can’t help but alienate teammates when all of the attention surrounds one person. But that hasn’t happened at Iowa.

“There could be jealousy and there could be problems in a situation like that when you have a player like that on your team,” said McGraw. “She makes them rise above everything and focus on just wanting to win. That’s, I think, the thing that sets her apart. It’s not all about her.”

McGraw particularly appreciates Clark’s vision that surpasses well beyond points, assists, rebounds, and championships.

“She wants to do something for the women’s game,” said McGraw. “She is certainly the center of attention, yet she always takes time for others. You see her signing autographs for lines and lines of people. She just does a great job in the community and continues to do whatever she can for the fans. She says the right things in public.

“I think she is definitely somebody that is a role model in our sport, and she’s changed the game,” McGraw continued. “I mean, nobody has done what she’s done in terms of the sellouts. The Big Ten sold out every single place. It’s unbelievable … unbelievable.

“The Big Ten tournament sold out for the first time,” she said. “Tickets for the last game were going for, I don’t know, $500 or something. It’s been amazing. I mean, 12 million people watched the Iowa-LSU game. That’s even more than a lot of NBA Finals. So it’s just phenomenal what she’s done for the game.”

Wherever Clark plays as a professional, McGraw will be watching.

“She’s one in a million,” said McGraw. “I think she’s going to do great things for the WNBA next year.”