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In Minnesota, Christian-Muslim dialogue turns strangers into neighbors

St. Cloud, Minn., Sep 28, 2016 / 02:58 pm (National Catholic Register).- In the aftermath of the mall stabbing of nine people by a Somali-Muslim Sept. 17 in St. Cloud, Minnesota, Muslims called on their friends at the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders and others for support.

Leaders from various faiths came together to pray and strategize a sensible reaction to the violence. They emerged from their meeting ready to show a united front to a community whose racial-cultural stress points where under heavy pressure.

This wasn’t just a crisis response, but the fruit of almost two years of ongoing Muslim-Christian dialogue.

“It has allowed us to build bridges in the past, and it seemed natural that we would have conversations and stand in solidarity when this happened,” said Kathy Langer, director of social concerns for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of St. Cloud and a member of the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders group. “We’re friends, so of course we could talk about next steps.”

Since 2014, Catholics in St. Cloud have been sitting down with their Muslim neighbors to talk about their respective religions and get to know each other as human persons. The importance of this dialogue became evident when the rural community, where racial tensions still run high, braced itself for the repercussions of the most recent violence. In addition to the work of the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders, a local Christian-Muslim dialogue group organizes gatherings with talks by Christians and Muslims and small-group discussions.

The St. Cloud Times has reported harassment of Somali businesses and a city on edge. The once-homogenous college town is still adjusting to the influx of Somali immigrants and refugees that started approximately 10 years ago.

“St. Cloud used to be called ‘white cloud,’ and they were proud of that,” said Sister Helen Rolfson, of the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester, Minnesota, and chairwoman of the St. Cloud Diocese’s Ecumenical and Interreligious Commission.

Now, among St. Cloud’s approximately 66,000 people, 9% of residents are Somali. But, according to Sister Helen, “some treat it as though it were 50%.” The Christian-Muslim dialogue is helping to ease the racial and cultural friction, and Catholics have taken a strong leadership role in the effort.

Bishop Kettler’s Leadership

Much of the impetus comes directly from the diocese’s shepherd, Bishop Donald Kettler. When he came to St. Cloud in 2013, he made interreligious dialogue a prominent part of his ministry.

“Interfaith and ecumenical dialogue is just a priority of his,” said Joe Towalski, director of communications for the diocese.

Bishop Kettler met informally with local Muslims and leaders of other churches early on, but when a mosque was vandalized in December 2014, it seemed like the right time to formalize the meetings into a recognizable group. Bishop Kettler hosted the first meeting of the Greater St. Cloud Area Faith Leaders in April 2015 at the diocesan chancery.

It has met monthly since then, and the bishop has attended many of the sessions. The organization also hosts an annual picnic.

At the most recent one in August, 250 people — Muslims and Christians — attended and shared a potluck meal. The human interaction is as important as the theological discussion, say members.

“Before this [mall stabbing] we learned to laugh with each other, to eat each other’s food that came out of our own kitchens. Because of this, we could move into this [new discussion due to the mall stabbing] with respect,” Langer said.

Both Langer and Sister Helen agree that having the foundation of mutual respect and friendship built by the ongoing dialogue is key to moving through the new community crisis.

“We have our mission cut out for us,” Sister Helen said.

In an interview with the St. Cloud Times on Sept. 22, Bishop Kettler called on the community to not back away from dialogue and interaction. In his column in the diocesan paper, the St. Cloud Visitor, he also wrote, “This is what I am asking you to do: Don’t be afraid.” He also quoted Pope Francis’ 2015 address to the U.S. Congress, reminding Catholics, “If you want security, give security.”

Dialogue Continues

It seems the flock is heeding the advice of its shepherd.

On Thursday, Sept. 22, almost 300 people filled the parish hall at St. Joseph’s Church in St. Joseph, Minnesota, a small town 10 miles outside of St. Cloud, for a Christian-Muslim dialogue that also welcomed nine Somali-Muslim families into the community. The event was organized locally by an ad hoc group with help from the Interfaith Christian-Muslim Dialogue Group, an organization that started 10 years ago in St. Cloud and has expanded regionally.

Planning started approximately four months ago, when the town’s historic homogeneity was broken by the new arrivals.

“In a town of 6,000, of which 3,000 are students at St. Benedict’s College, the impact was obvious and created some consternation in the community,” said Vince De Vargass, a resident of St. Joseph and organizer of the event.

According to De Vargass, many Somalis have come to Minnesota because the government asked the Lutheran Church to resettle Somali refugees, and there is a large Lutheran presence in Minnesota. Members of the Lutheran church also held a listening session in July to allow St. Joseph residents to express their reactions to the demographic change.

According to De Vargass, the “venting meeting” aired complaints that the Somalis were rude, and solely there to take advantage of American resources. Nevertheless, he thought it helped local white Christians to be more open to dialogue.

In the planning for the Sept. 22 event, De Vargass reached out personally to all of the Somali families in St. Joseph. Then he invited parishioners. The announcement started at the Saturday evening Mass on Sept. 17, before the attacks had taken place. On Sunday morning, he didn’t hold back, reminding parishioners that the actions of one person do not speak for a whole community.

‘These Are Our People’

The evening accomplished exactly what De Vargass had hoped it would.

“The reception was awesome,” De Vargass said. “People found the Somalis jolly, cheerful and talkative. It was not expected in the minds of a lot of people, but they really enjoyed meeting their neighbors.”

Almost all of the Somali families in St. Joseph attended, along with hundreds of Christians. The evening started with three speakers: Crosier Father Virgil Petermeier, a longtime missionary among Muslims; Ayan Omar, a language arts teacher at Technical High School in St. Cloud; and Jama Alimad, a Muslim elder in St. Cloud and executive director of Community Grassroots Solutions. Omar received a standing ovation after sharing her personal story of fleeing her home and starting life over in Minnesota.

After the panel, the Somalis went into sex-separated rooms for their evening prayer. Christians were able to observe. Then attendees were seated at mixed Christian-Muslim tables, and the panel took questions.

De Vargass said they are also working on bringing “English as a Second Language” classes and homework tutoring to their town, in order to continue to help their new neighbors integrate.

As De Vargass said, “This is our town, and these are our people.”

This article was originally published in the National Catholic Register.

Memory of Shimon Peres should inspire peace efforts, Pope says

Vatican City, Sep 28, 2016 / 08:57 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Upon learning about the death of Shimon Peres Wednesday, Pope Francis sent a telegram offering his condolences and his appreciation for the former president of Israel's tireless efforts for peace and the common good.

“As the State of Israel mourns Mr. Peres,” the Pope wrote, “I hope that his memory and many years of service will inspire us all to work with ever greater urgency for peace and reconciliation between peoples.”

In the Sept. 28 telegram, sent to current President of Israel, Reuven Rivlin, the pontiff expressed hope that the work which Peres, 93, began during his lifetime will continue.

“I fondly recall my time with Mr. Peres at the Vatican and renew my great appreciation for the late President's tireless efforts in favor of peace,” he said.

Pope Francis met with the former president and prime minister at the Vatican on several occasions, the most recent being June 20.

On June 8, 2014, Pope Francis met with then-Israeli President Peres and the Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I in the gardens of the Vatican for a meeting of prayer, “Invocation for Peace.”

At this meeting, Peres made a heart-felt appeal for peace, saying, “I come to call for peace between nations.” He acknowledged that “peace does not come easy.” Even if peace “seems distant,” the then-Israeli president continued, “we must pursue it to bring it close.”

“We are commanded to pursue peace,” he emphasized. Peres expressed his belief that “if we pursue peace with determination, with faith, we will reach it.” He recalled that in his life, he had seen both peace and warfare. He said he would never forget the devastation caused by war.

“We owe it to our children” to seek peace, he stressed.

The Pope and Peres also met a month earlier in 2014, on May 26, when Pope Francis expressed his hope that Jerusalem would be a true 'city of peace,' and Peres echoed this commitment.

“May Jerusalem be truly the City of Peace! May her identity and her sacred character, her universal religious and cultural significance shine forth as a treasure for all mankind,” Pope Francis said in the garden of the then-president's residence.

First elected to Israeli parliament in 1959, Peres would go on to serve three times as prime minister, and once as president.

Peres developed Israel’s nuclear program in the 1950s. He also ordered a major bombing campaign against Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah shelling in northern Israel in 1996.

However, he was also known for his peace efforts, playing a major role in the Oslo peace accords and winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to create peace between Israel and Palestine.

He had initially approved the construction of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory. However, he later shifted his view, saying that the settlements were a hindrance on the road to peace.

In his telegram today, the Pope said he was “deeply saddened” to learn of Peres' death and conveyed to President Rivlin and to all the people of Israel his “heartfelt condolences,” and prayers for all who grieve.

Pope Francis also invoked the divine blessing upon the nation of Israel.

Using Peres' life as inspiration, the Pope said, “In this way, his legacy will truly be honored and the common good for which he so diligently labored will find new expressions, as humanity strives to advance on the path towards enduring peace.”



Mexico may be the most dangerous country to be a priest

Mexico City, Mexico, Sep 28, 2016 / 06:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- With 15  priests killed in the last four years, Mexico is the most dangerous country to exercise priestly ministry in the entire world, Father Hugo Valdemar, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico, said recently.

In a report published Sept. 21, the research unit of the Catholic Multimedia Center recorded 14 murders of priests from 2012 to 2016. The death of Fr. José Alfredo López Guillén, whose body was found the night of Sept. 24, brings that number to 15.

Speaking to CNA, Fr. Valdemar stated that “it has become clear that Mexico is the country where ministers of the Catholic Church are most at risk.”

“Which is even surprising because there is still more risk in Mexico than, for example, in Syria or in those countries where Christians are persecuted by the Islamic State.”

Just in the last week, three priests were murdered in the states of Veracruz and Michoacán. Fathers Alejo Nabor Jiménez Juárez and José Alfredo Juárez de la Cruz were kidnapped and then murdered in the town of Poza Rica inVeracruz.

Fr. López, the pastor of Janamuato, was kidnapped Sept. 19 in Michoacán. His body was found on Sept. 24 near Puruándiro.

In both cases Mexican authorities have sought to deny that these homicides were linked to organized crime, though Veracruz and Michoacán have faced years of violence from drug cartels.

Fr. Valdemar said that in these last three crimes “the states where they occurred, in a highly irresponsible way, have wanted to deny this was carried out by organized crime.” He charged that the state governments “don't want to accept the state of affairs with organized crime, which has become uncontrollable in these areas.”

He added that the kidnapping and murder of the three priests “demonstrates the gravity of the situation” in Mexico.

“If there is no respect for a priest, who are generally highly respected in Mexico, then you can imagine the rest of the population. If they kill, extort, and rob a priest, imagine what it's like for the rest of the population, which is even more vulnerable, more unprotected than are we priests.”

God’s mercy overcomes human desperation, Pope Francis says

Vatican City, Sep 28, 2016 / 04:34 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Wednesday Pope Francis said that Jesus’ salvific mission reaches its culmination on the Cross in his conversation with the two thieves crucified with him, showing that God’s mercy goes beyond the desperation of human suffering, responding to it with mercy and forgiveness.

When the bad thief cries out to Jesus on the Cross, telling him “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us,” this act “bears witness to the anguish of man in front of the mystery of death and the tragic awareness that only God can be the liberating answer,” the Pope said Sept. 28.

As he dies on the Cross alongside two criminals, Jesus confirms God’s salvation “can reach any man in any condition, even the most negative and painful.”

Because of this, Francis said the ongoing Jubilee of Mercy is a time of grace and of mercy “for all, good and evil, those who are healthy and those who suffer. The good and the bad...because the Church is mercy!”

“Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ!” he said, and directed his words to all who are “nailed to a hospital bed, who live closed in a prison, to those who are trapped in war,” telling them: “look to the Crucifix; God is with you, he remains with you on the Cross and offers himself to all as the Savior.”

Pope Francis spoke to the thousands of pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his weekly general audience, giving special greetings to the American seminarians in Rome who will be ordained deacons Thursday and their families.

He continued his ongoing catechesis on mercy, telling attendees that when Jesus forgives those nailing him to the Cross, saying “Lord forgive them, for they know not what they do,” his words “culminate in forgiveness...Jesus forgives.”

When confronted with the opposite attitudes of the two thieves he is crucified with, Jesus hears the first one insult him, the Pope said, but explained that this offense was “driven by desperation” caused by suffering.

Jesus’ forgiveness, he said, bears witness to the fact that “he who has done terrible things in life has the ability to be forgiven.”

The second criminal, known as the “Good Thief,” provides a model of true repentance and “a catechesis focused on learning to ask Jesus for forgiveness,” Francis said.

In telling the second criminal “have you no fear of God?” the good thief reveals “the starting point of repentance: fear of the Lord.”

Pope Francis stressed that Fear of the Lord is “not being afraid of God, but that respect that one must give to God because he is God.”

“The good thief calls attention to the fundamental attitude which opens to trust in God: the awareness of his omnipotence and of his infinite goodness,” he said, noting that “this is the trusting respect which helps to make space for God and to entrust oneself to his mercy, even in the thickest darkness.”

Francis pointed to the “tenderness” and “humanity” of the good thief in asking Jesus to remember him, explaining that it’s necessary for the human being to know they are not abandoned, and that God is always close.

Jesus’ response that “today you will be with me in paradise,” shows that even a man condemned to death “becomes a model of Christianity who entrusts himself to Jesus.”

It is while Jesus hangs on the Cross that his salvation culminates, the Pope said, noting that his promise to the good thief “reveals the fulfillment of his mission: to save sinners.”

“On the cross, the final act confirms the final realization of his saving plan. From the beginning to the end he proved himself to be mercy, the definitive and unrepeatable love of the Father,” he said.

“Jesus is truly the face of the mercy of the Father,” Francis said, and, closing his address, noted how the good thief called Jesus by name, and led pilgrims in repeating the name of Jesus three times as a short prayer.

After his address, Francis turned his thoughts to the ongoing conflict in “the beloved and martyred Syria.”

Upon hearing of continued airstrikes in Aleppo, he voiced his “deep sorrow and lively concern” over the fact that innocent children, elderly, sick and youth continue to lose their lives in the bombings.

He assured his spiritual closeness to those suffering, and renewed his appeal for everyone to commit themselves to protecting civilians, “which is a committed and urgent obligation.”

Francis also issued an appeal “to the consciences” of those responsible for the bombings, saying “they must answer before God” for their actions.

This Ohio mystic mentored Mother Angelica. Was she a saint?

Cleveland, Ohio, Sep 28, 2016 / 03:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Rhoda Wise, the mystic visionary and reputed stigmatic and miracle worker who played a key role in the life of Mother Angelica, is now the focus of a diocesan inquiry as one of the first steps towards possible canonization.

“She was instrumental in the healing of Mother Angelica when she was a teenager,” Karen Sigler, director of the Rhoda Wise Shrine, told CNA Sept. 27. “Mother Angelica wasn’t the only one. There are all kind of testimonies of healings people received after contact with Rhoda in her home.”

“And it is still happening today,” Sigler said, citing the testimonies recounted on the website of the Canton, Ohio shrine.

St. Peter Catholic Church in Canton will host the Mass opening the diocesan investigation into Rhoda Wise’s cause for beatification and canonization.

Monsignor Robert Siffrin, the vicar general of the Youngstown diocese, will celebrate the Mass on Friday, Oct. 7 at 7 p.m.

Wise was raised in West Virginia, as one of eight children in a staunchly Protestant family, with the last name Greer. She first encountered Catholicism at age 16 when she underwent an appendectomy and a nun gave her a St. Benedict Medal. She hid the medal from her parents and kept it all her life, the Canton Repository newspaper reports.

Her first husband died in 1916, six months after they married. She then married George Wise. Their first adopted daughter died from influenza and they adopted a second daughter, Anna Mae, in 1922. They lived in a Depression-era three room house that was renovated over time.

Wise suffered serious health problems. In 1932, at the age of 44, doctors removed a 39-pound tumor from her body. In December 1936 she seriously injured her ankle by stepping into a water drain. Despite several casts, her foot remained bent inward and she could not stand on it without pain. Doctors thought the injury was permanent.

In 1938 she began a series of treatments and surgeries at Mercy Hospital, Canton. Doctors discovered complications from the surgery on her tumor, and operations to repair these complications left a raw, sore open wound that refused to heal.

She was visited by a Sister of Charity of St. Augustine who introduced her to the Rosary and suggested she offer nine days of prayer to St. Therese of the Child Jesus for her healing.

Wise went on to pray the nine-day novena and drew closer to the Catholic faith, converting to Catholicism on Jan. 1, 1939. A few months later, she was discharged from the hospital with the belief her wound was incurable.

Rhoda claimed to have received a visit from Jesus on May 27, 1939.

“The room which had been dark suddenly became bright, and when I turned around in bed to see the cause of it, I beheld Jesus sitting on a chair beside my bed,” she said in her own words. “I distinctly saw the marks of His forehead where the thorns had pierced His brow. He was gloriously beautiful and was robed in a gold garment which reflected every color.”

On June 28 of that year, she said, she received a visitation from Jesus and St. Therese of Lisieux.

“I am the Little Flower. You have been tried in the fire and not found wanting. Faith cures all things,” the vision of St. Therese said to her.

Wise said she was healed of her stomach wound that night. After another vision months later, her leg healed, and she went to church at the insistence of a vision of St. Therese. She attended Mass for the first time on the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, walking without crutches.

According to Wise, Jesus promised that many miraculous cures would take place at her home as well as many conversions. She said Jesus promised that her devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Little Flower would “win many souls.”

She reputedly suffered the visible stigmata for two and a half years and then suffered invisible wounds. She had several visions of Jesus and St. Therese. Her final vision took place June 28, 1948, ten days before her death.

“Tell the people not nearly enough of them are saying the daily Rosary; they must say the Rosary for the conversion of Russia,” the vision of Jesus told her.

Hundreds of people flocked to Wise’s home when she was alive. These visitors included a young Canton, Ohio native named Rita Rizzo. The teen would become Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN Global Catholic Network.

On Jan. 8, 1943, the 19-year-old girl had been suffering for months from severe stomach pains related to a discolored abdominal lump.

Wise had Rizzo sit in the wooden chair where Jesus purportedly sat during his visitations. Wise spoke with Rizzo’s mother. Wise gave Rizzo prayers to the Little Flower to say in a novena and told her to make some kind of sacrifice and promise to spread devotion to St. Therese if she were cured.

After the novena’s nine days, Rizzo suffered severe pains, then experienced what she believed to be a miraculous healing. According to Mother Angelica biographer Raymond Arroyo, doctors dismissed the claims of a miracle. Arroyo questioned whether the doctors gave a thorough evaluation, though there are no surviving medical records.

Mother Angelica saw the healing as pivotal.

“When the Lord came in and healed me through the Little Flower, I had a whole different attitude,” she told Arroyo. “I knew there was a God; I knew that God knew me and loved me and was interested in me. I didn’t know that before. All I wanted to do after my healing was give myself to Jesus.”

The young woman would visit Wise’s home more frequently and consult her about her religious vocation.

Decades later, Wise’s house was willed to Mother Angelica and EWTN. It was in the possession of the Eternal Word Television Network from 2001 through 2014, when it was deeded to the Rhoda Wise Shrine.

Sigler, the shrine’s director, welcomed the opening of the investigation into Wise’s life.

“A lot of us have waited for it for a long time. We’re very happy,” she said.

If the diocesan investigation finds sufficient reason, the cause for Wise’s beatification would go to the Vatican for further evaluation.

The Rhoda Wise Shrine is a private association of the faithful approved by Bishop George V. Murry of Youngstown. It takes care of the house Wise lived in and its grotto. The shrine website is