VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Christians must stand firm in their faith but that is not the same as being rigid and unwilling to bend out of compassion for another, Pope Francis said.

God is love and “the one who loves does not remain rigid. Yes, they stand firm, but not rigid; they do not remain rigid in their own positions, but allow themselves to be moved and touched,” the pope said Aug. 20 before reciting the midday Angelus prayer with an estimated 10,000 people gathered in St. Peter’s Square.

Pope Francis greets visitors in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican to pray the Angelus Aug. 20, 2023. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

Among the crowd were 29 seminarians who had just arrived to begin their studies at the Pontifical North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome. Pope Francis gave them a shoutout and wished them “a good formation journey.”

In his main talk, Pope Francis commented on the day’s Gospel reading, Mt 15:21-28, which tells the story of the Canaanite woman who asked Jesus to heal her daughter. At first, Jesus brushes her off since she is not Jewish. But he sees her persistent faith and grants her request.

“Later,” the pope said, “the Holy Spirit would push the church to the ends of the world,” but at that point Jesus was preaching to the Jews.

“Faced with her concrete case, he becomes even more sympathetic and compassionate,” the pope said. “This is what God is like: he is love, and the one who loves does not remain rigid.”

“Love is creative,” he said. “And we Christians who want to imitate Christ, we are invited to be open to change.”

In the life of faith and in relationships with others, the pope said, people need to pay attention and to be willing “to soften up in the name of compassion and the good of others, like Jesus did with the Canaanite woman.”

Of course, he said, another aspect of the story is the woman’s strong and insistent faith that Jesus could heal her daughter.

The woman “probably had little or no awareness of the laws and religious precepts” of Judaism, but she draws near to Jesus, prostrates herself and has a “frank dialogue” with him, the pope said.

“This is the concreteness of faith, which is not a religious label but is a personal relationship with the Lord,” he said.

Pope Francis asked people to consider whether they show the compassion and flexibility of Jesus and the bold faith of the Canaanite woman.

“Do I know how to be understanding and do I know how to be compassionate, or do I remain rigid in my position?” he suggested they ask. “Is there some rigidity in my heart, which is not firmness? Rigidity is bad, but firmness is good.”

“Do I know how to dialogue with the Lord? Do I know how to insist with him? Or am I content to recite beautiful formulas?” he continued.

Pope Francis also drew attention to the ongoing conflict in Niger where a military coup overthrew the president in late July and where the bishops have opposed the idea of other countries in the region using their military to restore democracy.

“I join the bishops’ appeal in favor of peace in the country and for stability in the Sahel region,” the pope said. “I accompany with my prayers the efforts of the international community to find a peaceful solution as soon as possible for everyone’s benefit.”

“Let us pray for the dear people of Niger and let us also pray for peace for all populations wounded by war and violence,” he said. “Let us especially pray for Ukraine, which has been suffering for some time.”

SCRANTON – Born and raised just one street over from the Basilica of the National Shrine of Saint Ann, Kathy Dennebaum feels a deep connection to the annual Solemn Novena. She makes it a priority to attend services each year.

“I’ve had three major intentions that I’ve brought to the Novena and all three of them came to fruition so I’m a firm believer,” she explained.

Crowds gather on the lawn of the Basilica of the National Shrine of Saint Ann on July 26, 2023.

An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 people attended Novena services each day this year.
“This has been a very sacred place since I was a little kid. My grandmother and grandfather had nine children that came here and were all members of this parish until they died,” Dennebaum added. “I just like to come and listen to the priests when they speak. A lot of times it’s very meaningful.”

The West Scranton native, who has been married to her husband Mark for 45 years, now bring their own grandson to experience the peace that comes from the prayerful place.

“I think it goes back to the fact that we grew up here and we’d like to have him be part of what we were part of when we were young,” Mark Dennebaum said.

This year marked the 99th year for the annual Novena that began July 17, 2023. The Novena concluded July 26, the Feast of Saint Ann.

“We never miss it, my whole family of eight sisters and brothers,” Patricia DeNapoli, a parishioner of Saints Anthony and Rocco Parish in Dunmore, said. “No matter what I ask, somehow, someway, it gets answered. You have to believe. If you don’t have faith there is nothing else!”

Very Rev. Richard W. Burke, C.P., rector of Saint Ann’s Shrine Basilica, said the annual Novena remains popular because Saint Ann is such a powerful intercessor.

“Every week we get letters and calls and have conversations with people who had their prayers answered one way or another through the intercession of Saint Ann,” Father Richard said.

With the centennial anniversary of the Solemn Novena quickly approaching, Father Richard believes its importance and relevance is just as important as when it started in 1924.

“Just think about all the major issues that we have to pray about. We can influence them through the gift of our prayers that God gives to us, we can influence the events of the world,” Father Richard stated. “The end of the hostility in Ukraine is a prayer that is on everybody’s mind. When they send in their petitions to put at the Altar of Saint Ann, nine out of ten of them have peace in Ukraine on those petitions.”

Jacob and Matthew Metzger, twins who grew up in West Scranton, began attending the Novena at a young age.

“This is the holiest ground I could be on,” Matthew said. “It is the greatest time of the year. It brings us a lot of peace and a lot of happiness to come down here.”

At 20 years old, the twins, who are both pre-med students, now volunteer every year at the food stand at the Solemn Novena to Saint Ann.

“It is such an amazing place to be. Everyone is kind and loving and filled with the Holy Spirit,” Jacob said. “It’s a family environment here. We all love what we do. We all love helping the people and putting a smile on people’s faces every day.”

With the 2023 Novena just having wrapped-up, coordinators say they will not waste any time in getting ready for next year.

“We’re going to get a committee going in August to begin planning what is going to happen next year. We already have some suggestions,” Father Richard hinted. “It will be very special.”

SCRANTON – In less than one week an expected 1.5 million young Catholics will descend on the capital city of Portugal for World Youth Day 2023. Among them will be 21 pilgrims from the Diocese of Scranton.

World Youth Day 2023 is scheduled to take place in Lisbon, Aug. 1-6, and the motto for this year’s event is a passage from Luke’s Gospel: “Mary arose and went with haste.”

Diocesan pilgrims who will be attending World Youth Day 2023 gathered for a retreat on June 11 at the Diocesan Pastoral Center in Scranton.

As a part of their trip, those young people and chaperones in the Diocese of Scranton delegation will also visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima.

“Our Diocesan delegation will visit the site of the apparitions and the miracle of Fatima. We’re also going to visit the Shrine of the Eucharistic Miracle of Santarem which is exciting and then we’re going to dive into the experiences of World Youth Day themselves,” Shannon Kowalski, Diocesan Director of Service and Mission, said.

Only six of the pilgrims from the Diocese of Scranton have attended World Youth Day before.

“It is certainly exciting for me because this will be my first time attending World Youth Day,” seminarian Jacob Mutchler said. “I’m very much interested and excited to visit Fatima. I think that it is going to be a very powerful experience. I think we can expect a very powerful experience having people from all parts of the world coming together to share their faith and worship the Lord and really grow in their relationship with Him.”

Maggie Guarnieri of Pittston, a parishioner of Saint Maria Goretti Parish in Laflin, will be traveling with her two sisters.

“The fact that we all get to do this together is going to bring us even closer than we already are so I’m really excited for that,” Guarnieri explained. “I’m very excited to be incredibly present along the way and almost unplug from reality and be fully immersed in this experience.”

Pope Francis is expected to have nine events with young people, including hearing their confessions and eating lunch with them. He will arrive in Lisbon Aug. 2 where he will be welcomed by Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, president of Portugal and pray vespers with local bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and pastoral workers.

The highlight of the trip will come Aug. 6 when the pope will end his trip to Portugal by celebrating the closing Mass for World Youth Day along the Portuguese coast.

“I’m really excited to gather with so many young people from around the world and also just to see Pope Francis. I think he has such a calling for young people to get involved in the church,” Tommy Flynn, Director of Youth and Family Ministry at Saint John the Evangelist and Saint Joseph Marello Parishes in Pittston, stated.

Pope Francis has called World Youth Day an antidote against indifference, isolation and lethargy.

“This is a great opportunity for young people around the world to see that there are young people in the church and they’re not the church of the future but they’re the church of today,” Flynn added.

At 23, Flynn says he will be excited to take the energy and excitement he experiences and bring it back home.

“Even if we don’t experience Mass in the same language, it is still a Mass to everyone and we know the special things that happen during Mass,” Flynn said. “I’m just really excited to get to know some of the other pilgrims from across the diocese, across the world and deepen my faith a little bit.”

Kowalski, who has been planning the pilgrimage for several years, echoes those sentiments.

“There is just no other experience like it. There is no way you can go to World Youth Day and not come back a changed person. There are literally millions of people from all over the world – United States, Europe, Asia, Africa – all coming together for the same reason,” Kowalski explained. “They want to have an experience of faith rooted in the Catholic experience, to pray with our Holy Father, Pope Francis, to learn more about our faith and to take advantage of the Sacraments.”

Following their experiences at World Youth Day 2023, many of the Diocese of Scranton pilgrims will also visit Barcelona, Spain, to visit the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia before returning home to the United States.

WASHINGTON (OSV News) – A new survey indicates belief in spiritual entities continues to decline in the U.S. — and evangelization leaders say the data is a call for Catholics to examine their own witness to their faith.

Poll results released by Gallup July 21 show that 74% of U.S. residents believe in God, 69% in angels, 59% in hell and 58% in the devil.

A file photo shows a sparse congregation during Mass at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in North Beach, Md. A new survey indicates belief in spiritual entities continues to decline in the U.S.; the data is a call for Catholics to examine their own witness to their faith, evangelization leaders told OSV News. (OSV News photo/CNS file, Bob Roller)

The responses point to a new low in spiritual beliefs among U.S. residents, consistent with trends seen by Gallup – which has conducted the survey for the past two decades – and Pew Research Center.

The data also aligns with other indicators of waning religious interest in the U.S. Religious book sales were down 6% in 2022, while Christian and gospel music combined took just 1.7% of the total U.S. music market share in 2022, according to a year-end report from data company Luminate.

“I’m not surprised that belief in spiritual realities is dropping,” Bishop Andrew H. Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota, said in an email to OSV News.

Bishop Cozzens, who is spearheading the U.S. bishops’ National Eucharistic Revival, said he has observed “a loss of the sense of the transcendence in the world” that often translates into a denial of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.

“People don’t understand that the whole world is a sacrament, which points to the reality of God,” he said. “We are living in an increasingly materialistic culture that tends to deny spiritual realities, and for that reason people cannot understand that everything that exists points to a deeper, invisible, spiritual reality.”

When that spiritual reality fails to translate into acts of everyday virtue and charity, a disconnect occurs, said Father Steve Grunow, CEO of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries, in an email to OSV News.

“If our witness to the God in Christ is not accompanied by an evident way of life that demonstrates that we are actually Christ-like, we should not be surprised if people do not take our beliefs and practices seriously,” he said.

Compared with results from Gallup’s first poll of this kind in 2001, the latest Gallup data — collected from 1,011 adults representing current U.S. demographics — shows belief in God and heaven has tumbled 16 points. Belief in hell is down 12 points, with belief in the devil and angels falling 10 points each.

Gallup found that declining belief in God was matched by nearly equal increases in uncertainty and nonbelief. Nonbelief has outstripped uncertainty with regard to heaven, hell, angels and the devil.

Just over half of U.S. residents (51%) believe in all five spiritual entities, with 11% stating they do not believe in any of them. Seven percent are unsure about all of them, while 31% replied they believe in some of the entities but not others.

Gallup noted that rephrasing its question regarding belief in God produced “slightly different results,” with 81% in last year’s survey affirming their belief when they were not offered the option to say they were unsure.

Belief in all five entities trended higher among frequent churchgoers, Protestants, nondenominational Christians and Republicans, said researchers.

The current poll also showed Protestants as more likely than Catholics to believe in all five spiritual entities, although “broad majorities” of Catholics continue to believe in each. Differences between the two groups were more likely to involve belief in heaven, hell and the devil.

Income, age and education levels correlated with belief in all five spiritual realities, said Gallup. Those with annual household incomes under $40,000, those over 55 and adults without a college degree were most likely to profess belief, and women were more likely than men to believe in all of the concepts, except for the devil.

But Father Grunow said that “well-known and referenced” cultural factors do not alone account for the downturn in religious belief.

“People will only discover why belief in God matters if they are invited to encounter the God in whom we have faith,” he said. “Extending this invitation is the responsibility of all the baptized, and it cannot be delegated to institutions, or just presumed to have happened through the vapors of ethnicity.”

His own pastoral experience sheds light on some glaring gaps in missionary discipleship, he said — and “the usual suspects” for disaffiliation, such as “secularism, abuse scandals, the role of women (and) science versus faith” were not in evidence.

“I lived in one of the most secular cities in one of the most secularized states in this country, and … the most prevalent answer I received to the questions of why (the unaffiliated) did not believe in God or attend church services … was ‘because Christians are mean,'” he said. “Consider the results of the Gallup poll in relation to that insight and let it sink in.”

In addition, “you have to look at the anthropology of the human being” to evangelize, Marlon De La Torre, senior director of evangelization for the Diocese of Columbus, told OSV News. “You have to identify with that human being, understand what they’re going through.”

Presenting the Gospel as missionary disciples means “we can’t throw a tool or program at other human beings,” he said. “We have to throw another human being at them.”

“The heart leads to the heart,” he said, referencing the approach of St. Francis De Sales.

De La Torre also stressed the need for Catholics to be formed in their faith in order to share it effectively with others. “Tell me why you believe,” he said. “And not in theology terms. I’m not asking for Aquinas. I’m asking you to be real.”

Reversing the trends identified by the poll will be difficult in the short term, but “if we invite more and more people to an encounter with the living Jesus Christ, this will have a profound effect,” said Bishop Cozzens.

“When people encounter the truth of a reality they cannot see, but they can sense with their souls, then they are open to the truth of the spiritual world in which we live,” he said. “In fact, we live in a spiritual world where there is a great struggle happening. … Angels, demons, heaven, hell are profoundly real realities that affect us all. When people meet Jesus, they come to see this.”