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Vatican, Al-Azhar to officially resume dialogue

Vatican City, Oct 21, 2016 / 06:17 am (CNA/EWTN News).- On Friday, the Vatican announced it will be sending a representative to Egypt to set plans for the official re-launching of dialogue between the Holy See and the Al-Azhar Mosque and adjunct University, marking a seismic step in Catholic-Muslim relations.

In an Oct. 21 communique, the Vatican said the secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Bishop Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, will be heading back to Cairo for an Oct. 23 meeting with a delegation from Al-Azhar.

He will be accompanied by Msgr. Khaled Akasheh, head of the council’s Office for Islam; Bishop Emmanuel Ayad Bishop of Luxor, Egypt; Professor Joseph Maila, an expert in Islamic Studies and Fr. Jean Druel, O.P., Director of the Dominican Institute of Oriental Studies.

According to the communique, the meeting in Cairo is to prepare for an encounter that will take place in Rome, “probably toward the end of April 2017, and which marks the official resumption of dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar.”

The visit to Cairo will also serve as an opportunity to evaluate, together with Archbishop Bruno Musarò, nuncio to Egypt, and the Deputy of the Great Imam of Al-Azhar, Sheik Abbas Shouman, “the possibility to promote concrete initiatives for peace.”

Bishop Ayuso made a similar visit to Al-Azhar in July, where he met with Sunni academic and politician Mahmoud Hamdi Zakzouk that to discuss the formal resumption of dialogue between the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and Al-Azhar University. The current Oct. 23 meeting, then, can be seen as a fruit of that encounter.

The Imam of al Azhar, currently Ahmed al Tayyeb, is considered by some Muslims to be the highest authority the 1.5-billion strong Sunni Muslim world and oversees Egypt’s al-Azhar Mosque and the prestigious al-Azhar University attached to it.

Founded in the Fatimid dynasty in the late 10th century together with the adjoining mosque, the university is one of the most renowned study centers for the legal principals of Sunni Islam.

Al Tayyeb paid a visit to the Vatican May 23 for a meeting with Pope Francis, which marked a major step in thawing relations between the al-Azhar institution and the Holy See, which were strained in 2011 with claims that Pope Benedict XVI had “interfered” in Egypt’s internal affairs by condemning a bomb attack on a church in Alexandria during the time of Coptic Christmas.

In an interview with Vatican Radio published May 24, Al Tayyeb spoke out harshly against terrorism carried out by extremist Islamic groups such as ISIS, saying that “those who kill Muslims, and who also kill Christians, have misunderstood the texts of Islam either intentionally or by negligence.”

“We must not blame religions because of the deviations of some of their followers,” he said, and issued a global appeal asking that the entire world to “close ranks to confront and put an end to terrorism.”

If the growing problem of terrorism is neglected, it’s not just the east that will pay the price, but “both east and west could suffer together, as we have seen.”

The happiest day of Mother Teresa's life

Vatican City, Oct 21, 2016 / 06:08 am (CNA/EWTN News).- It’s been said that saints often come in pairs.

Sts. Peter and Paul, Mary and Joseph, Francis and Clare, and Louis and Zelie Martin are just a handful of such saints, coupled together through marriage or friendship.

Perhaps the best-known modern saintly pair of friends would be Mother Teresa and John Paul II, whose lives intersected many times during her time as Mother Superior of the Missionaries of Charity, and his pontificate.

When John Paul II came to visit Mother Teresa’s home in the heart of the slums in Kolkata in 1986, Mother Teresa called it “the happiest day of my life.”

When he arrived, Mother Teresa climbed up into the white popemobile and kissed the ring of the Bishop of Rome, who then kissed the top of Mother’s head, a greeting they would exchange almost every time they met.

After their warm hello, Mother took John Paul II to her Nirmal Hriday (Sacred Heart) home, a home for the sick and the dying she had founded in the 1950s.

Footage of the visit shows Mother Teresa leading John Paul II by the hand to various parts of the home, while he stops to embrace, bless, and greet the patients. He also blessed four corpses, including that of a child.

According to reports of the visit from the BBC, the Pope was “visibly moved” by what he saw during his visit, as he helped the nuns feed and care for the sick and the dying. At some points the Pope was so disturbed by what he saw that he found himself speechless in response to Mother Teresa.

Afterwards, the Pope gave a short address outside the home, calling Nirmal Hriday “a place that bears witness to the primacy of love.”

“When Jesus Christ was teaching his disciples how they could best show their love for him, he said: 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.' Through Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity, and through the many others who have served here, Jesus has been deeply loved in people whom society often considers ‘the least of our brethren,’” the Pope remarked.

“Nirmal Hriday proclaims the profound dignity of every human person. The loving care which is shown here bears witness to the truth that the worth of a human being is not measured by usefulness or talents, by health or sickness, by age or creed or race. Our human dignity comes from God our Creators in whose image we are all made. No amount of privation or suffering can ever remove this dignity, for we are always precious in the eyes of God,” he added.

After his address, the Pope greeted the gathered crowds, making a special stop to greet the smiling and singing sisters of the Missionaries of Charity.

Besides calling the visit the happiest day of her life, Mother Teresa also added: "It is a wonderful thing for the people, for his touch is the touch of Christ."

The two remained close friends, visiting each other several times over the years. After her death in 1997, John Paul II waived the five-year waiting period usually observed before opening her cause for canonization. At her beatification in 2003, John Paul II praised Mother Teresa’s love for God, shown through her love for the poor.

“Let us praise the Lord for this diminutive woman in love with God, a humble Gospel messenger and a tireless benefactor of humanity. In her we honour one of the most important figures of our time. Let us welcome her message and follow her example.”


This article was originally published Aug. 26, 2016.

What to do about Halloween? Catholic moms – and an exorcist – weigh in

Denver, Colo., Oct 21, 2016 / 03:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- For years, Cecilia Cunningham and her husband took their children trick-or-treating in their then-suburban Philadelphia neighborhood.

“It was the kind of neighborhood outside of Philadelphia where everybody knew each other, and it was a really fun neighborhood thing,” Cunningham told CNA. “People were just out talking while kids were trick or treating, and it had been really nice up until that point.”

That point, Cunningham recalled, was in the early 1990s, when pop culture saw a resurgence of the character “Freddy Krueger,” a skinless serial killer who slashes and kills his victims with a razored glove and first appeared in the 1984 film “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”

Cunningham’s youngest at that point was a year and a half, “and she spent the entire night crying upstairs because of all these kids coming to our door; every other kid was Freddy Krueger.”

That year, Halloween seemed to have taken a sharp turn towards the sinister and the dark, Cunningham said.

And she wasn’t alone in her observations. Several moms from the neighborhood and her weekly rosary group had noticed the same thing. That next fall, as Halloween approached, they decided that instead of trick-or-treating, they would host an All Saints Day party at their parish, complete with a potluck, saint costumes, and tons of candy.

“We knew would be really important (to have candy) for kids who had been trick or treating, and it was an absolute blast, it was really so much better than we expected,” Cunningham said.

As some Catholics see darker elements of some Halloween celebrations, parents like Cunningham often face similar dilemmas – what to do about Halloween?

The History of the holiday

The exact origins of Halloween and its traditions are somewhat muddled.

Some historians claim that Halloween is a “baptized” form of Samhain, an ancient Gaelic festival celebrating the harvest and marking the beginning of winter – the time of year when a significant portion of the population would often die.

Because of the fear of death that came with winter, celebrations of Samhain seemed to have included going door to door asking for treats dressed in costumes, which were thought to disguise the living from  life-taking spirits.

The Catholic feast of All Saints Days traces its origins in the Church to the year 609, and it was first celebrated in May. However, in the 9th century, Pope Gregory IV moved the holiday to Nov. 1, so that Oct. 31 would become the celebration of the vigil of the feast – All Hallow’s Eve.

While some historians believe this move was made so the holiday could coincide with, and thus “baptize”, the holiday of Samhain, other historians believe that this may have been because the Germanic church was already celebrating All Saints Day on November 1, and the move had less to do with Samhain than previously thought.

An exorcist’s perspective

Father Vincent Lampert is a Vatican-trained exorcist and a parish priest of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis who travels the country, speaking about his work as an exorcist and what people can do to protect themselves against the demonic.

He said when deciding what to do about Halloween, it’s important for parents to remember the Christian origins of the holiday and to celebrate accordingly, rather than in a way that glorifies evil.

“Ultimately I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the kids putting on a costume, dressing up as a cowboy or Cinderella, and going through the neighborhood and asking for candy; that’s all good clean fun,” Fr. Lampert said.

Even a sheet with some holes cut in it as a ghost is fine, Fr. Lampert said.

The danger lies in costumes that deliberately glorify evil and instill fear in people, or when people pretend to have special powers or dabble in magic and witchcraft, even if they think it’s just for entertainment.  

“In the book of Deuteronomy, in chapter 18, it talks about not trying to consult the spirits of the dead, not consulting those who dabble in magic and witchcraft and the like,” he said, “because it’s a violation of a church commandment that people are putting other things ahead of their relationship with God.”

“And that would be the danger of Halloween that somehow God is lost in all of this, the religious connotation is lost and then people end up glorifying evil.”

It’s also important to remember that the devil and evil spirits do not actually have any additional authority on Halloween, Fr. Lampert said, and that it only seems that way.

“It’s because of what people are doing, not because of what the devil is doing. Perhaps by the way they’re celebrating that day, they’re actually inviting more evil into our lives,” he said.

One of the best things parents can do is to use Halloween as a teachable moment, Fr. Lampert said.

“A lot of children are out celebrating Halloween, perhaps evil is being glorified, but we’re not really sitting around and talking about why certain practices are not conducive with our Catholic faith and our Catholic identity. I think using it as a teachable moment would be a great thing to do.”

Trick-or-treating Catholics

 Anne Auger, a Catholic mom of three from Helenville, Wisc., said that while she lets her kids dress up in costumes and go trick-or-treating, she’s found that she has to screen the houses as they go, avoiding ones that are decorated with scarier things.

“Last year we had this experience this person came to the door dressed like this demonic wolf with glowing eyes and it was like, what on earth?” she said.

“Sometimes people dress up like witches and I can understand that, but this was a whole new level. It’s just so different from when we were little.”

She also makes sure to emphasize to her children the significance of Halloween as it relates to All Saints Day, Auger said.

“We let them know that we’re having a party because it’s celebrating the saints in heaven, we’re celebrating them, so when they’re trick or treating and doing all of this we tell them it’s because it’s a party for all the saints.”

Kate Lesnefsky, a Catholic mother of seven children ranging from ages 3-16, said she thinks it’s important for Catholics not to shun Halloween completely, since it has very Christian origins.

“I think as Christians we’re so used to being against the world, that sometimes we shoot ourselves in the foot, even though it might have been something that actually came from us,” she said. “But then we lose the history of it, and we think, ‘Oh well this is the devil’s day,’ just because some people say it is.”

Lesnefsky said she lets her kids choose their costumes for trick-or-treating, as long as they’re not too scary or demonic. The next day, her children go to Mass for All Saints Day, and the family uses it as an opportunity to talk about what it means when someone passes away, and what it means to be a saint.

“I have a sister that died when I was 19, so we talk about different people that we know in heaven, or my grandparents, and we’ll talk about different saints,” Lesnefsky said.

And while haunted houses and horror movies are off limits to her children, Lesnefsky said she thinks Halloween is an important time for Catholics to celebrate and be a witness in the culture.

“As Catholics it’s important that we don’t become fundamentalist Christians, I think that can be a detriment to our faith,” she said. “If we are negligent of knowing history, then we don’t even know about things that could be life-giving in our culture.”


This article was originally published Oct. 31, 2015.

As Philippines drug war escalates, bishops call for justice

Manila, Philippines, Oct 21, 2016 / 12:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Amid President Rodrigo Duterte's fierce war against the underworld of drugs in the Philippines, the country's bishops are rallying with a pastoral appeal to end unjust violence while encouraging efforts to maintain law and order.

“We are disturbed by an increasing number of reports of suspected drug-peddlers, pushers and others about whom reports of criminal activity have been received, have been shot, supposedly because they resist arrest,” stated a recent press release from the Bishops Conference of the Philippines.

“It is equally disturbing that vigilantism seems to be on the rise,” the bishops continued, noting the increasing number of murders portrayed in the media.

Since his election in May, President Duterte has handed out death sentences to drug dealers in an effort to end the illegal drug culture in the Philippines. Although over 600,000 dealers have already turned themselves in since the campaign, these efforts have also resulted in police brutality on the streets of Manila.

Stories such as the one of Renato and Jaypee Bertes are not uncommon tales.

The New York Times reported on the Filipino father-son duo who smoked shabu, a common type of methamphetamine, and occasionally sold the drug on the streets of Manila. When police barged into their home and arrested the two men, they were beaten, tortured and eventually shot to death while in police custody.

According to the New York Times, over 1,800 people have been similarly killed at the hands of police or vigilantes over the past few months. Alarmed by the number of killings, Filipino bishops have spoken out against the violence and have called for true justice from members of law enforcement.

“To kill a suspect outright, no matter how much surveillance work may have antecedently been done on the suspect, is not morally justified,” the bishops stated.

Although President Duterte has stated that addicts are “no longer viable as human beings on this planet,” the bishops underscored the dignity of every person, saying, “God never gave up on us. We have no right giving up on ourselves or on our brothers and sisters.”

In light of the killings, the bishops offered guidelines for members of law enforcement to follow. First, they said that killing in self-defense is a legitimate and morally permissible action. However, they denounced killing on the grounds of suspicion, saying that “suspicion is never the moral equivalent of certainty,” and it could not be morally justified.

“Let no one ever raise his hand against his brother or sister, from the blood that is shed – even if it be the blood of one we suspect of crime – cries to heaven for justice!” the bishops said.

The bishops conference also noted that receiving monetary gain for killing, in the case of some vigilantes, is always wrong and should immediately stop. They asked citizens to report unlawful killing and any vigilante activity.

“It is the moral duty of every Catholic, every Christian, in fact, to report all forms of vigilantism of which they have personal knowledge,” the bishops stated.

Although the bishops decried the acts of violence committed against drug dealers in the Philippines, they highlighted their hopes that criminal activity would end and voiced their support of true justice at the hands of law enforcement.

“We understand the difficulties that law-enforcers face, the daily risk to life and limb, but not only civil society but also the Church counts on them for the flourishing of society,” the bishops said.

“Members of the community – Christians especially - should not be too quick to point accusing fingers at law enforcers, prosecutors and judges,” they continued.

The bishops were hopeful that harmony between citizens and government could be restored, and urged those in power to use their influential positions for good.

“We beg our prosecutors and judges to remain firm in their consecration to justice, for there can be no greater insult to the Creator than to use the gifts of intelligence, discernment and one’s success at legal studies for ends contrary to building the Body of Christ."


This article was originally published Aug. 23, 2016.

Augustine Institute offering scholarships for a master's in theology

Denver, Colo., Oct 20, 2016 / 02:02 pm (CNA).- If you've been waiting for the extra push to pursue a master's degree in theology, this scholarship opportunity might be exactly what you need.

The Augustine Institute's Graduate School of Theology, a Catholic theological school offering formation in the New Evangelization, has announced its fourth annual St. John Paul II scholarship competition, in which four winners will be awarded full-tuition scholarships starting in the 2017-2018 academic year.

“The Institute is particularly looking for men and women with an ardent desire to proclaim the Truth of the Gospel in and through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy,” the Augustine Institute’s Academic Dean, Dr. Christopher Blum, told CNA.

“We are sure to have many more qualified applicants than we can bring to Denver as finalists, so the competition will be significant,” he said.

Over the past four years, the Augustine Institute – located in Denver, Colorado – has offered various students full-ride scholarship opportunities, which has proven successful for the Denver community, the Institute, and the scholars themselves.

”The John Paul II scholars have enjoyed remarkable internship opportunities here in Denver,” Dr. Blum noted.

“They have served as student-teachers in archdiocesan schools, missionaries with the homeless and college students, catechists at local parishes, and some we have placed with apostolates such as RealLifeCatholic or have been able to incorporate into the Institute's own apostolic work,” he said.

When choosing among the many individuals who are eager to pursue a Master’s in theology, the Augustine Institute’s scholarship committee will screen the applicants and choose twelve finalists who will make the journey to Denver on January 12, 2017 for final interviews.

Dr. Blum said that “the deciding factor typically has to do with how applicants demonstrate their commitment to serve the Church's mission of evangelization. Leading candidates have often spent several years working in parishes or schools or with apostolates of one kind or another.”

In addition, “the St. John Paul II award is bestowed on those students who demonstrate themselves to be devout servants of Christ and His Church and who show significant potential as leaders in the New Evangelization,” an Oct. 11 press release stated.

Although only four applicants are chosen for the full-tuition scholarships, many runner-ups are given the opportunity for partial scholarships to the Augustine Institute.

More information about the Augustine Institute and the St. John Paul II Scholarship is available at: