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It's not over yet: Nebraska bishops, Catholics continue to fight death penalty

Lincoln, Neb., Aug 28, 2015 / 06:01 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Nebraska’s three Catholic bishops have asked all people of goodwill to continue to fight the death penalty, after it won a last-minute reprieve in the state Wednesday.

The group Nebraskans for the Death Penalty, largely financed by Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and his supporters, said it had gathered 166,692 signatures from all 93 of the state's counties, enough to briefly halt the repeal of the death penalty approved by the state’s unicameral legislature in May.

The advocacy group needed roughly 114,000 signatures to immediately halt the repeal of the death penalty, a move which will likely place the fate of capital punishment in the hands of Nebraska voters in 2016.

"Nebraskans sent a strong message about crime and punishment in our state by signing this petition in extraordinary numbers," said state treasurer and former attorney general Don Stenberg, a co-chair of the petition drive, according to the AP.

The three Nebraskan bishops, who said in May that capital punishment “cannot be justified” in the state at present, asked in a statement Thursday that all people of goodwill join them in continued opposition to the death penalty.

“Justice requires punishment, but it does not require that those who have committed serious crimes be put to death,” the bishops said in their Aug. 27 statement.

“For the Catholic community, this issue – like all life issues – involves more than public policy,” they said. “It involves our faith and the central principle that human life is sacred. Reflection on the God-given dignity of every human person should guide all our decisions about life, including refraining from the use of the death penalty.”

The bishops join the three most recent Popes – St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis – in opposing capital punishment in most cases. As explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, because life is sacred, the death penalty should only be used if there are no other means with which to protect the public.

In paragraph 2267, the catechism notes that in the modern world, scenarios in which the death penalty is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent," language borrowed from St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae.

The collected signatures from Nebraskans for the Death Penalty were delivered Wednesday to the Nebraska secretary of state's office, which will verify them with each country as belonging to registered voters. If the necessary number was obtained, the death penalty repeal will be blocked until voters decide on the issue in the November 2016 general election.

Even if the repeal is blocked, Nebraska still has no way to execute people on death row, as it lacks two of the three legally required lethal injection drugs.

In recent years, many domestic pharmaceutical companies have decided they do not want to be associated with the taking of life and have therefore stopped providing lethal drugs. This causes states to look for companies abroad, but since the European Union holds the death penalty as a violation of human rights, it is illegal for European pharmaceutical companies to sell the drugs to the United States.

When the Nebraska legislature repealed capital punishment in May, overriding Ricketts' veto, it became the first conservative state to do so in 42 years.

In their statement, the Nebraska bishops vowed to keep fighting capital punishment, which they say does not clearly deter crime and disproportionately affects minorities and the poor.

“Other means are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life,” they said.

“This is the message Nebraska’s three bishops will take to the state’s 375,000 Catholics in the coming year to encourage support for upholding the prohibition of the death penalty.”

Nebraska’s three bishops are Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln; and Bishop Joseph Hanefeldt of Grand Island.

Is this what Saint Rose of Lima looked like?

Lima, Peru, Aug 28, 2015 / 04:02 am (CNA/EWTN News).- The face of the first saint of the New World may be better known than ever, thanks to a team of scientists that has analyzed the skull of Saint Rose of Lima.

Scientists from the University of Saint Martin de Porres in Peru and the Brazilian Anthropological and Dental Legal Forensics Team reconstructed her face and the faces of two other saints who lived more than 300 years ago.

The Dominicans have preserved the skulls of Saint Rose, Saint Martin de Porres and Saint John Macias in Saint Dominic Church, located in the historic center of the Peruvian capital of Lima.

Under the care of Dominican friars and with strict security measures, the skulls were temporarily transferred to a clinic in Lima.

There, the researchers took computerized tomography images. This is a process used in diagnostic medicine using CT or ultrasound scans.  

Saint Rose of Lima's face was the first to be revealed. According to the news site Peru Catolico, the researchers said the reconstruction shows she was “a pretty woman with soft features and a well-distributed face.” Unlike her classical portrayals, the reconstruction indicates her eyes were large.

Saint Rose was born in Lima to Spanish parents in 1586. At a very young age, she chose to consecrate her life to God. She practiced very intense prayer and penance each day. Sometimes she deprived herself of food and sleep. She joined the Third Order of St. Dominic. After three years of illness, she died at the age of 31 in 1617.

Her feast day is celebrated on Aug. 23 in many parts of the world, while in Peru and several places it is observed Aug. 30. Her reconstructed image was unveiled at Saint Rose Parish on the Brazilian island of Guaruja on Aug. 23.

This coming November the research team will present the conclusion of their work in Peru. They will unveil the bust of Saint Rose and those of the two other saints.

St. Martin de Porres was the first black saint of the Americas. He was known for his generosity, his care of the poor, his love of animals, and his seemingly miraculous power to heal. He became a Dominican brother and died in 1639 at the age of 60.

St. Juan Macias, another Dominican saint, was a regular companion of St. Martin de Porres. He served as the porter at the Dominican convent in Lima. He was known for his evangelism, his service to the poor, and his miracles. He died in 1645.

Catholic groups say this US bill could fight modern day slave labor

Washington D.C., Aug 28, 2015 / 12:25 am (CNA/EWTN News).- A proposed federal bill to combat human trafficking and forced labor in the corporate supply chain is an opportunity for Catholics to speak up in defense of oppressed people around the world, its supporters say.

“As Catholics in the United States, we work to fight human trafficking because it is an affront to the lives and dignity of our brothers and sisters who are its victims,” Catholics Confront Global Poverty said in an Aug. 21 action alert.

“Thanks in large part to growing awareness, education and outreach, more companies are aware of the possible existence of modern-day slavery in their global operations and supply chains,” the group said.

Catholics Confront Global Poverty is a joint initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Relief Services. The initiative is backing proposed federal legislation that would require companies to make public information about their products’ supply chains to ensure their products do not result from child labor, forced labor, slavery and human trafficking.

The Catholic initiative asks Catholics and others to contact Congress in support of the Business Supply Chain Transparency on Trafficking and Slavery Act of 2015.

The bill was introduced in the House of Representatives July 27 by Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.) and co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.). The legislation deems forced labor, slavery, human trafficking and the worst forms of child labor as “among the most egregious forms of abuse that humans commit against each other.” The bill notes the United States’ role as the world’s largest importer.

Catholics Confront Global Poverty says companies have a responsibility to address human rights and issues like exploitation in their supply chains.

The Catholic initiative cited Pope Francis’ Jan. 1 World Day of Peace message, which stressed business’ duty to be vigilant so that “forms of subjugation or human trafficking do not find their way into the distribution chain.”

“Together with the social responsibility of businesses, there is also the social responsibility of consumers,” the Pope added. He said every person should be aware that purchasing is “always a moral – and not simply an economic – act.”

The Catholic backers of the proposed U.S. law have a long history of helping trafficking victims. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its partners have provided intensive case management to over 2,300 survivors of trafficking and over 500 of their family members in over a decade.

For its part, Catholic Relief Services has enacted 100 programs in over 35 countries to reduce human trafficking. The agency has taken part in many public-private initiatives to engage corporations to eliminate the worst forms of slave labor.


Even Hurricane Katrina couldn't keep this nun out of New Orleans

New Orleans, La., Aug 27, 2015 / 04:13 pm (CNA/EWTN News).- For Sister Greta Jupiter, SSF, it was an odd sensation driving through New Orleans East in the months after Hurricane Katrina. Her neighborhood was quiet. The power, out. Gone was the familiar white noise of birds chirping. There was no traffic, save for military and first responders.

“I felt like I was in the middle of a war zone,” she told CNA. “It was just that devastating.”

The month was October 2005 and Sr. Greta was making her first, unofficial visit to New Orleans, her hometown and the seedbed of her religious vocation, since Hurricane Katrina. Sr. Greta and her fellow Sisters of the Holy Family had been staying at a convent and a private home in Lafayette.

Before driving into the water-logged city, Sr. Greta was required to get a tetanus shot and several other vaccinations. She wore a mask and rubber boots. Her goal was to visit Saint Mary's Academy, a private all-girl's high school her community had established more than 160 years prior. She was principal of the academy at the time.

She'd heard rumors the school had been spared from massive flooding after the city's levees failed. More than 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater, but she still hoped against hope that St. Mary's was in the lucky 20 percent.  

It wasn't.

St. Mary's had been submerged in more than eight feet of water. The water had since drained, but the first level of the school was still sitting in six inches of black mud. Mold climbed up the walls and several classrooms had been completely emptied of desks, computers and chairs.

“That was the end of everything,” Sr. Greta said.

On the drive back to Lafayette that October day, Sr. Greta turned several thoughts over in her mind. “Lord, give me some direction,” she prayed. “Where do you want me to go from here? Can the school be rebuilt? Will the people come back? Is New Orleans East something of the past?”  

This month marks 10 years since Hurricane Katrina paved its destructive path across the southern coast of the United States, causing some $108 billion in damages. The Category 3 hurricane was one of the strongest storms to strike the U.S. coast in a century, according to FEMA. The hurricane and its aftermath killed more than 1,800 people – the vast majority of whom were in Louisiana.

Those who didn't lose their lives to Katrina lost their homes, their jobs and their community. Sr. Greta and the Sisters of the Holy Family were no exception: the community's school, nursing home, and motherhouse were rendered unusable by the floodwaters.

“I just didn't know what to think or believe because I had never, ever experienced anything like this,” Sr. Greta said. “It was not anything that anyone could have been prepared for or could have even imagined. It was like an atomic bomb exploded or something.”

The sisters were weighing their options when then-Archbishop Clifton Hughes announced that the diocese would return to the city to rebuild. The sisters decided to follow suit.

“There's no way that the Archdiocese of New Orleans can be in existence if the Sisters of the Holy Family cannot be there,” Sr. Greta said. “The Sisters of the Holy Family was founded in New Orleans and for the people in New Orleans first.”

The Sisters of the Holy Family were founded in New Orleans in the 1800s to minister to slaves and the poor. St. Mary's Academy was the first Catholic secondary school for African American girls in New Orleans.

Sr. Greta's first order of business was to reach out to all of St. Mary's senior students, whose final year at the all-girls high school had been disrupted by Hurricane Katrina. Many of the students and their families had temporarily settled in Houston or Atlanta. Sr. Greta invited the seniors to return to New Orleans for St. Mary's traditional ring ceremony, during which seniors receive their class rings marking their last year at the school. More than half of the school's seniors were able to return for the celebration at New Orleans' St. Louis Cathedral.

Sr. Greta said the ring ceremony was the first sign of hope for the future of St. Mary's Academy.

“Those students who were able to come back to the city...when they came back and they saw their other classmates, they just screamed and cried,” she said. “Parents and students were happy to have some feeling of belonging again to the school.”

“St. Mary's was still alive.”

The academy was able to offer classes again as early as January, through a collaboration with two other Catholic schools in the area. The “MAX school” represented St. Mary's Academy, St. Augustine High School and Xavier University Preparatory School. Former students of the three schools were able to register for classes on a first-come, first-serve basis – and the MAX school had a full enrollment, despite the fact that many former students were unable to return to New Orleans.

That spring, students at the “MAX school” marched in a parade for Mardi Gras.

Sr. Greta said the “MAX school” was an anchor of hope for students and their families who were still picking up the pieces of their lives after Katrina.

“The important thing for us at the time was to try to bring some normalcy to the lives of the students,” she explained. “Just like I was homeless at one time, they were homeless. And not only homeless but school-less and friend-less because they were disassociated with the friends they went to school with…(they were) people among strangers.”

“We wanted to bring them back to their comfort zone to a place that they felt that they were part of a family.”

In fall of 2006 – exactly one year after Hurricane Katrina – St. Mary's Academy opened a full academic program for grades 1-12 in St. James Major Catholic Church, which was not in use at the time. The program included a boarding house for children whose families were unable to return to New Orleans because their homes had been destroyed.

The following year, the program moved into portable classrooms on St. Mary's Academy's original grounds. And in 2010, St. Mary's Academy moved into a brand new building on their original grounds. The school now offers classes for pre-K through 12th grade.  

For Sr. Greta, Hurricane Katrina “showed us that people do care and that there is good in everything.”

“God allows things to happen for a reason,” Sr. Greta said. “We don't really know what those reasons are and we may not get the answer right away the end, you'll find out that there was a good reason for it.”

Even with the brand new building, Hurricane Katrina has still left a mark on the students of St. Mary's Academy. Many girls experience anxiety and stress when it rains or when there are reports of hurricanes nearby. But Sr. Greta believes the community at St. Mary's Academy can help students heal.

“We're home, we're anchored, and we are your family,” Sr. Greta said.

Ahead of papal visit, Cuba's Women in White fear government crackdown

Havana, Cuba, Aug 27, 2015 / 02:24 pm (CNA).- The leader of a human rights group is concerned that the Cuban government will repeat its 2012 crackdown on opposition activists when Pope Francis visits the nation next month.

During Pope Benedict XVI’s visit three years ago, Cuban officials made arrests and took other actions to keep the dissidents from communicating with each other, said Berta Soler, leader of Women in White, a group of wives and other relatives of jailed Cuban dissidents.

“We’re really worried,” Soler told CNA last week. “When Pope Benedict XVI came to Cuba they shut down telephone lines in an area of some 15 to 25 miles. They did the same to the cell phones of human rights activists and their close relatives.”

She said the government put them under surveillance three days before Pope Benedict’s arrival.

“Cuban officials began arresting all the human rights activists so we couldn’t participate in the Masses the Pope celebrated in Santiago de Cuba and Havana.”

Pope Francis will visit Cuba Sept. 19-22.

“We’re waiting (to see what will happen), we’re thinking the same thing is going to happen when the Holy Father Pope Francis comes,” Soler said.

Nevertheless, she stated that Women in White as well as other human rights activists will try to go to the Masses because “we want to be close to the Holy Father.” She said they know that they’re going to be arrested.

Soler met with Pope Francis in Saint Peter’s Square in May 2013 and sent a letter to the pontiff through the nunciature and through friends. She asked the Pope: “When you come to Cuba could you listen to us even for a few minutes?”

The dissident leader reported arrests of the Women in White and other opposition activists on recent Sundays.

“We’ve been going out now (to march) for 18 Sundays and we can take it for granted that the Castro regime is going to come after the Women in White and the human rights activists on Sunday, Aug. 23rd… because we’re deep into our #TodosMarchamos (We’re all marching) campaign to free the political prisoners.”

She said that the Castro government is assembling “paramilitary mobs organized and financed by (the regime) to physically and verbally attack us.” National police and state security agents are also involved.

According to Soler, at present “there are about 80 political prisoners and 42 who are only technically released or on parole.” The latter 42 could be arrested again and sent back to prison without trial at any moment.

On Sunday Aug. 16 more than 60 human rights activists along with some Women in White were restrained and arrested as they were marching after Mass at Saint Rita’s Church in Havana.

As expected, over 50 human rights activists and members of the Women in White were arrested in Havana on Sunday, Aug. 23 at the end of their protest march. Soler told the newspaper Martí News that excessive force was used in some arrests. Those detained were released five hours later in different parts of the city.

Some were released near nightfall in uninhabited areas where they were at risk of violence or assault, Soler charged.