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Constant thefts in churches plague Mexican archdiocese

The Cathedral of San Luis Potosí in Mexico. / Credit: Saher via Wiki Commons

ACI Prensa Staff, Nov 30, 2023 / 18:40 pm (CNA).

The Archdiocese of San Luis Potosí expressed its concern about the constant wave of thefts that is plaguing churches in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosí.

Father Tomás Cruz Perales, spokesman for the Archdiocese of San Luis Potosí, said in a statement to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, that although thefts from churches are a constant, most of them have so far been insignificant, primarily thieves looking for money in the poor box.

“It’s a situation that we’re going through, but it’s very identified with people seeking to satisfy needs, perhaps related to [drugs and alcohol], or who live from day to day,” Cruz commented. He also lamented that in some cases, when confronted, the offenders “have even attacked the sacristans.”

However, he noted that on a couple of occasions more serious sacrileges have been committed where sacred objects have been destroyed. In a particularly serious incident at St. Philip of Jesus Church located on the outskirts, eight chalices and six ciboriums with gilded relief (and adorned with) precious stones, patens, microphones, wiring, and video cameras were stolen.

“Even the altar wine was [desecrated]. That day there was a true sacrilege, especially because the consecrated hosts were left on the ground,” the priest added.

Although thefts from churches “are a constant,” Cruz noted that insecurity goes beyond simply stealing money from poor boxes: “It’s a situation that we experience throughout the country, unfortunately,” he noted, alluding to the widespread problem of thefts from homes, businesses, and on the streets.

The spokesman said that most churches, particularly in the state capital, have taken security measures, “such as the installation of cameras and alarms, especially when the churches have already been closed.”

He also thanked the local authorities for the measures implemented so far but called on the population to remain alert in the face of growing insecurity.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Opus Dei priest dies from heart attack while preaching at retreat

Father Fadi Sarraf, 51, was a recently ordained Opus Dei priest. / Credit: Photo courtesy of Opus Dei

CNA Staff, Nov 30, 2023 / 18:20 pm (CNA).

Father Fadi Sarraf, a recently ordained priest of Opus Dei, reportedly died of a heart attack while preaching at a facility near Montreal, Canada, where the personal prelature often holds retreats.

“Please pray for the repose of the soul of Fr. Fadi Sarraf, 51, who passed away today suddenly of an apparent heart attack while preaching a retreat at the Manoir de Beaujeu. May he rest in peace,” Opus Dei’s information office in Canada said on X Tuesday.

Prior to being a priest, Sarraf, an immigrant from Damascus, Syria, was an engineer in Canada. He came to that country at 17 years old, according to a June 2021 article on Opus Dei’s website.

German Archbishop Georg Gänswein, who was the personal secretary of the late Pope Benedict XVI, ordained Sarraf in Rome along with 26 other members of Opus Dei on May 22, 2021.

Sarraf, who joined Opus Dei in 1990, first encountered the personal prelature in 1989 when one of his classmates at McGill University in Montreal invited him to visit the Riverview Study Centre, a formation center for young men run by Opus Dei.

“I really enjoyed the different activities that they had, the conferences, the times of prayer in the chapel and especially the study weekends and the hikes,” he said.

Sarraf described leaving his homeland for Canada as “not easy” but said that “by overcoming my fear of the unknown I learned that beauty and goodness can express themselves in different ways.”

“This led me to be curious about discovering it in everyone I meet and in every situation,” he said.

After graduating as a mechanical engineer, Sarraf earned his master’s in business administration at Laval University in Quebec City. 

Following his graduate degree, he became the director of Ernescliff College, a student residence run by Opus Dei that offers Christian formation on the University of Toronto campus.

Sarraf also worked part time leading a formation program at Northmount, a Catholic boys’ elementary school in Toronto.

Moving to Montreal in 1997, Sarraf then worked for the Foundation for Culture and Education as a project manager and fundraiser. The foundation is an institute for the formation of men and women in Canada.

Able to communicate in five languages, Sarraf said that his goal in life was “to do God’s will in whichever way it manifested itself.”

“In the early years that meant doing different projects, taking care of different apostolic activities and construction projects for facilities that would be used for Opus Dei’s apostolates,” he said.

“Over the last four or five years there was more focus on preparing for the priesthood, even though I continued with many of the tasks I had before,” he added.

Sarraf said his decision to become a priest became “crystallized” in 2017, and he moved to Spain to pursue a master’s degree in theology at the University of Navarre.

He then pursued his doctorate in spiritual theology in Rome in 2020. 

“The decision to become a priest is in continuation with my decision to serve God in Opus Dei. Obviously I will serve God in a different way because you change your profession: as a priest you become a priest 100%, so you leave behind your other activities. During the years that I have been in Opus Dei, God has been preparing me for this transition,” he said at the time.

Sarraf said that “to serve others is the primary goal of the priest, to bring them closer to God, to help them discover God’s love in their daily life.”

“Ever since I announced that I was going to be ordained a priest, many people have been writing to me asking me for prayers, assuring me of their prayers too. I actually keep a list of the different requests so that I don’t forget anyone,” he said.

“My primary intention is that more people in the world discover God’s love for them, and that all of us being ordained together be precisely that instrument of God’s love, a bridge between man and God, to help people discover peace and love in their lives,” he said.

Sarraf said that a priest is supposed to help “everyone,” not just Catholics or Christians.

“It’s the example we see of Our Lord in the Gospel. Even though his main mission was to the Jews, he was open to everyone, and the message of the priest, the Christian message, is not only for a few but for everyone,” he said.

“The priest should welcome everyone and try to bring anyone he comes in touch with to discover God’s love and how he or she can correspond to that love,” he added.

NET Ministries launches outreach to U.S. Hispanic youth

YDisciple is a streaming project aimed at providing training resources for adults and teaching materials for youth. It announced in November 2023 it is partnering with the Juan Diego Network to adapt the YDisciple project to the Spanish language and the needs of Latino culture. / Credit: Screenshot of YDisciple

ACI Prensa Staff, Nov 30, 2023 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

In an effort to better serve young people, NET Ministries is collaborating with the Juan Diego Network through its founder, José Manuel De Urquidi, to adapt the YDisciple project to the Spanish language and the needs of Latino culture.

Based in Minnesota and with a national outreach, NET’s mission and vision is “to challenge young Catholics, through relational ministry, to follow Christ and embrace a life of community in the Church in this new Apostolic Age, engaging 1 million young Catholics with the good news through well-formed missionary leaders,” its website explains. 

YDisciple is a streaming project aimed at providing training resources for adults and teaching materials for youth, focused on the creation of small groups that encourage discussions and reflections on faith. Its resource library includes videos, guides for participants and leaders, and resources for parents.

According to a Pew Research study, 60% of Catholics under the age of 18 in the United States are Hispanic.

Annie Grandell, director of YDisciple, explained that in the project, “we are not limiting ourselves to a simple translation, we are ‘transliterating.’ That is, we are working closely with the Juan Diego Network, an organization passionate about involving all the young people of our Church.”

“Not only have they translated the videos, but they have adapted them so that they resonate authentically with the Hispanic community,” she pointed out.

Juan Diego Network is a leading Catholic podcast producer and intercultural marketing and communications agency with a clear focus: evangelize, form, and entertain the Latino community in today’s world.

On Sept. 14, two series, “Dios es” and “La invitación” (“God Is” and “The Invitation”), were launched on YDisciple.tv. The first is a collection of videos based on questions asked by today’s youth.

“La invitación” is a four-part series for small-group study that invites young people to reflect on important questions such as: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What is the Gospel? Why do I need community?

The Spanish collection with these new releases and other introductory videos is available here.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

New York diocese offers $200 million to abuse victims in largest-ever settlement offer

St. Agnes Cathedral, Diocese of Rockville Centre / Italianfreak00|Wikipedia|CC0 1.0 DEED

Rockville Centre, N.Y., Nov 30, 2023 / 16:55 pm (CNA).

In what it called its “best and final” offer to survivors of abuse, the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York on Monday proposed a plan that offers $200 million to approximately 600 survivors of abuse, the largest-ever settlement offer made in diocesan bankruptcy history.

The new plan includes an immediate cash payout of a minimum of $100,000 to claimants with a lawsuit and a $50,000 minimum to claimants without a qualifying lawsuit.

In a statement released Monday, the Long Island diocese called the plan “the best, most efficient, and most effective means to immediately begin compensating all eligible survivors equitably while allowing the diocese to emerge from bankruptcy and continue its charitable mission.”

The settlement offer includes a diocesan contribution of $50 million as well as a $150 million contribution from “parishes, co-insured parties, and other Catholic ministries,” according to the statement.

“The diocese agrees with Bankruptcy Court Judge Martin Glenn, who is overseeing the case, that survivors have waited too long for compensation and that any alternative to a global settlement plan creates chaos that puts both survivor compensation and the futures of parishes at risk,” the statement continued.

In July, Manhattan-based Glenn, the chief bankruptcy judge for the Southern District of New York, threatened to end bankruptcy proceedings if the diocese and abuse survivors could not reach an agreement, which would then send the cases back to state court for civil trials, Newsday reported at the time.

In its Nov. 27 statement, the diocese said it “has already made it clear that it is at the end of its resources. … Continuing to prolong the case, or dismissing the case, will ensure that payments to survivors only go down from the current settlement offer contained in the plan.”

On Tuesday, however, Glenn said he would not approve a bankruptcy plan without detailed information from the diocese’s parishes, as abuse claimants who would vote on the plan need to be able to weigh the value of their claim against the available resources at the parish where their abuse occurred, Reuters reported Nov. 28.

According to Reuters, James Stang, a representative of the official committee of abuse survivors in the case, said claimants would not vote for the new plan because it would eliminate legal claims against individual parishes.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre filed for bankruptcy in October 2020 after the passage of the Child Victims Act in New York in 2019 allowed for sex abuse lawsuits to be filed in past cases where survivors had not yet taken action, long after the statute of limitations had expired.

The diocese is one of six in the state of New York to have declared bankruptcy; only the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Brooklyn have not filed for bankruptcy. 

German bishop says divisions within local Church are a ‘disaster for the faithful’

Bishop Stefan Oster. / Credit: Diocese of Passau

Vatican City, Nov 30, 2023 / 16:25 pm (CNA).

A prominent German bishop and steadfast opponent of the controversial Synodal Way has leveled his harshest criticism yet of the state of the Catholic Church in his own country, describing the German episcopacy as deeply “divided”— and warned of potentially catastrophic consequences for Catholic believers.

In the latest in a series of high-profile critiques of the German Synodal Way, Bishop Stefan Oster of the Diocese of Passau did not shy away from identifying profound theological disagreements as the source of division within the Catholic Church in Germany.

“It is a tragedy that we, German bishops, have so little agreement on key issues of anthropology and ecclesiology,” Oster told the Polish Catholic publication Gosc Niedzielny in an interview published Nov. 30.

The divided episcopacy “is obviously a disaster for the faithful in Germany,” said the 58-year-old Oster, who was tapped by Pope Francis to participate in the Vatican’s recent Synod on Synodality assembly after he was not selected as a delegate by the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK).

Divisions in the German episcopacy recently came to the forefront when Oster and three other bishops — Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, and Bishop Gregor Hanke of Eichstatt — boycotted a Nov. 10-11 meeting of a committee of Synodal Way leadership. 

The committee was created with the intent of establishing a permanent synodal council of laity and bishops to govern the Church in Germany — something explicitly forbidden in a January letter from top Vatican officials to the DBK specifically approved by Pope Francis.

While his decision to not participate highlighted divisions in Germany, Oster explained his choice was “aimed precisely at maintaining unity with Rome.”

“I was faced with a choice: to clearly highlight the existing polarization among bishops or to highlight my path of unity with the universal Church,” said the Bavarian bishop, whose diocese is in the southeast corner of Germany and has the highest rate of Catholics per capita.

Growing criticism

The Synodal Way, which began in December 2019 as an initiative of the DBK and the Central Committee for German Catholics (ZdK), a lobby of lay Church employees, has come under criticism in recent weeks as its proponents push forward with efforts to change Church teaching and practice related to human sexuality, sacramental ordination, and Church governance.

In a Nov. 11 letter to four German laywomen who had written Pope Francis to express their concerns about the Catholic Church in Germany, Pope Francis wrote that “numerous steps” being taken by some in the local Church — including the work of the synodal committee — “threaten to steer it increasingly away from the universal Church’s common path.”

One of the Vatican’s top officials, Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, also informed the German bishops in an Oct. 23 letter that changes in the Church’s teaching on same-sex sexual relations and male-only holy orders were not on the table in meetings between Rome and Synodal Way delegates moving forward.

In addition, Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki, president of the Polish Bishops’ Conference, wrote to Pope Francis in early October criticizing the Synodal Way, calling many of its resolutions “extremely unacceptable and un-Catholic.”

The leadership of the Synodal Way has largely decried or deflected these criticisms and has shown no sign of backing down from its controversial aims.

A synodal solution

The ratcheting up of tensions between German Synodal Way leadership and other Catholic leaders — especially Pope Francis — has led many to express concerns about the possibility of schism.

But in his recent interview, Bishop Oster was not without hope that a solution could be found.

He suggested that a “way out of the impasse” between Germany and the universal Church could be reached if the German Synodal Way “could now submit” and integrate with the Vatican’s Synod on Synodality — “with a clear acceptance of its content and decisions.”

“This would require great humility and would perhaps even mean withdrawing decisions already made in the Synodal Way,” such as the resolution to bless same-sex sexual unions.

Deaths by suicide reach ‘highest number ever recorded’; ideation likely higher, expert says

null / Studio4dich/Shutterstock

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 30, 2023 / 15:15 pm (CNA).

Deaths by suicide grew to “the highest number ever recorded in U.S. history,” reaching nearly 50,000 in 2022, according to new data released by the CDC this month.

The CDC study, which shows the provisional data for 2022, reported that there were 49,449 deaths by suicide last year. Though the sheer number of deaths by suicide was 3% higher than in 2021, the CDC said that the final data for 2022 is expected to show an even higher number.

According to the data, which was “based on more than 99% of all 2022 death records” processed by the National Center for Health Statistics as of August, the suicide rate for 2022 reached 14.3 deaths per 100,000. This exceeds the previous year’s 14.1, which had been the highest rate since 1941.

The most heavily impacted age group was adults above age 35. These groups saw the largest increases from the previous year, with increases ranging from 3% to 9%. The suicide rate for white females was also among the largest increase of any group in 2022, with a rate increase from 7.1 to 7.3.

Four times as many males as females died by suicide in 2022, 39,255 to 10,194, respectively. However, the study does note that “suicides for females are more likely to be incomplete” because “their deaths more frequently involve drug poisonings.”

Notably, the suicide rates for individuals below the age of 35 generally decreased.

Native Americans and Alaska natives continued to be the ethnic group suffering the highest suicide rate, at 26.7 per 100,000.

Dr. Melinda Moore, a clinical psychologist and professor at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), told CNA that though the number of deaths by suicide is at a record high, she believes the number of people suffering suicidal ideation likely “dwarfs” the number of deaths.

“I see a lot of suicidal ideation on my college campus (students, clients we treat in our training clinic at EKU) and also in my private practice,” Moore said. “We know that about 12.6 million Americans indicated they had serious thoughts of suicide in 2021 and, I suspect, this number is increasing as well.”

Moore said that though “there is not one reason we can ever point to that is able to demonstrate why an individual dies by suicide,” the “suicide rates have been steadily increasing for about 50 years” and this is “likely due to a combination” of “reasons why people despair.”

Poor mental health is oftentimes pointed to as the reason behind suicide, Moore said, but she believes that this is “not the sole cause.”

The lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic and “the effects of isolation and physical distancing, and, of course, the anxiety created by the uncertainty of our lives, health, future well-being, and productivity” further exacerbated the issue, according to Moore.

Moore said that “while we now have better assessment methods and empirically supported approaches to treating suicide,” these methods are still “not being widely used by professionals who come in contact with suicidal individuals.”

“Suicide is a problem that is not going to go away without better use of the science we have to assess, treat, and manage it, but it must be addressed like the other major leading causes of death and taken seriously by funders, training institutions, and systems of care to address it broadly and systemically.”

Monsignor Charles Pope, a Washington, D.C., parish priest and author who has contributed to the Christian-based Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries, told CNA that he believes loss of faith in society plays a large part in the record suicide numbers.

Pope said that “stress plus meaninglessness” can make life a kind of prison or “gulag” for many.

“With the biblical narrative gone and the practice of Christian religion dramatically down, there are only ephemeral and worldly goals to seek,” he explained. “But since we have an infinite longing in our heart and the world is finite, it is a recipe for unhappiness, frustration, and depression.”

“The wisdom of the cross is gone,” Pope went on, adding that it is lacking “even among many practicing Catholics.”

“Faith has been reduced to a kind of therapeutic thing,” he said, “devoid of the call to take up a cross and courageously carry it in faith. So, life has little meaning for people today and neither does suffering, which becomes therefore a total disaster rather than something to get through on the way to something glorious.”

‘I am prepared to die a martyr’: Freed Nigerian monk recounts kidnapping, murder of brother monk

Brother Godwin Eze. / Credit: Benedictine Monastery, Eruku

ACI Africa, Nov 30, 2023 / 13:00 pm (CNA).

Brother Peter Olarewaju recently recounted the horrific kidnapping and torture he and two other monks from a Benedictine monastery in Nigeria underwent, including the murder of one of the monks.

Brother Godwin Eze spent his final hours encouraging his brother monks before he was singled out, shot, and his body thrown in a fast-flowing river.

Eze was kidnapped Oct. 17 alongside Olarewaju and Brother Anthony Eze from the Benedictine monastery in Eruku in the Ilorin Diocese, tortured, and later killed. Unable to find the murdered monk’s body after days of searching along the river where it was thrown, the monastery performed his funeral rites at the Cathedral of St. Joseph in Ilorin on Nov. 22.

In one of the gestures that Olarewaju said will be stuck with him forever, Eze is said to have fed his two companions biscuits when the kidnappers allowed them to eat after making them trek barefooted for hours on empty stomachs.

With one free hand, Eze fed the two whose sore hands remained tied behind their backs.

“The men who kidnapped us gave us two biscuits while keeping our hands tied. They momentarily loosened Brother Godwin’s hand to allow him to feed us. I remember him holding up the biscuits for each of us to take a bite in turns. I will never forget the love and reassurance in his eyes when he fed us,” Olarewaju told ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa.

Olarewaju spoke to ACI Africa on Nov. 26, a few days after he was discharged from the hospital where he had been admitted in critical condition.

Frail and with deep wounds on his body from being flogged daily while he was held captive, Olarewaju had slumped into the arms of his brother monks who carried him from the monastery to the hospital. There, he was given 30 injections before he came around and was allowed a few more days to recuperate in a wheelchair.

“We were in very bad shape when the kidnappers finally set us free. One more day with them and we would surely have died,” Olarewaju said.

Kidnapped at night

The monk gave ACI Africa a detailed day-by-day account of what transpired from the moment armed men broke into their monastery in Eruku and took the three of them away.

He said that nine men carrying AK-47 guns, machetes, and other weapons arrived at the monastery at about 1 a.m. on Oct. 17 as the brothers were sleeping. Later, the monks would discover that one of the men was a farmer who had been kidnapped from elsewhere and forced to lead the suspected Fulani men to the monastery. The man’s family would later successfully negotiate for his release ahead of the monks.

“I heard strange voices. At first I thought it was my brothers waking up because we normally wake up very early to pray. But listening keenly, I couldn’t recognize the voices. Something told me it was Boko Haram and so I made an attempt to run out of the room,” Olarewaju recalled.

“I quickly abandoned the idea to run as I felt the men’s presence in our room,” he continued. “Instead, I slid under the bed and hid there for a while. I heard them rough up my roommate Anthony, who shouted ‘Jesus!’”

Olarewaju said the men ransacked the room and found him hiding under the bed. They took him and the roommates joined two other monks, including Eze, who along with another monk, Benjamin, was already outside the house kneeling, their hands tied behind their backs.

Asked to surrender their phones, Eze is said to have calmly confessed that their devices were with Oga, the monastery’s novice master.

“I was scared for our novice master and so I quickly offered to give them my phone,” Olarewaju said. The men then led him by the gun’s barrel back to his room, where he surrendered his phone and the novice master’s phone number.

The gang leader then asked the monks who among them could speak Hausa, one of the Nigerian native languages. 

“Brother Benjamin raised his hand, thinking that the men wanted someone to offer them translation services. To his shock, he was given a hot slap across his face. In fact, it was so bad that he is still being treated for it as we speak. It then occurred to us that the men didn’t want anyone that could follow their conversations in Hausa after they took us away,” Olarewaju said. Benjamin was kicked out of the group following the ordeal.

The other three — Olarewaju, Eze, and Anthony Eze — who didn’t speak Hausa, were led away, embarking on a five-day journey of flogging, starvation, and long hours of walking barefoot in marshes, through thorns and rocky grounds, up mountains, and down valleys.

“They strategically put us in a straight line with one of their men separating us. Our hands were tied behind our backs for the entire five days until we were released on Oct. 21,” Olarewaju said, adding that Eze walked in front of his two companions.

“The kidnappers were very well coordinated. They would send two ordinarily dressed men out in the day to survey the landscape and find the routes we would use during the night. When night fell, they would set us in motion, making us walk very long hours,” Olarewaju recalled. “We were not allowed to complain as they would hit us with machetes, gun barrels, and large pieces of wood. At daybreak, they pushed us in the bushes [and] made us sit out in the open while they surrounded us. Sometimes, we were rained on while they made a fire for themselves away from us.”

The kidnappers had demanded 150 million naira (about $190,000) when they called the monastery a few hours after they took Olarewaju and his companions. The amount, Olarewaju said, was too large for the monastery.

Whenever the ransom negotiations went south, the kidnappers turned to the three monks with their weapons to steam off.

“They took turns to hit us. There is no place on our bodies they didn’t hit us. We tried our best to hide our eyes from the beating. We cried until our voices became hoarse,” Olarewaju said. “I lack words to describe those men. To me, they have lost every sense of humanity. Something else is living in them.”

Sometimes, the men would steal yams from people’s farms and prepare meals for themselves. Monks were made to carry the heavy loads of yams and not given any to eat. 

One night, they were made to lie down under a large tree as it rained. “Unknown to us, we were made to lie in an ants’ nest,” Olarewaju recounted. “The insects bit us and since our bodies were numb, we only noticed the swelling in the morning.”

By 5 p.m. on Tuesday, the three were faint from hunger and no amount of beating could make them move.

“I think our kidnappers thought that we were going to die before they could collect the ransom. One of them brought out six pieces of biscuits and untied Godwin to feed us,” he said.

On the way, the men smoked all kinds of substances, Olarewaju said. “They would pick some leaves, crush them and make them into big rolls, which they kept smoking. At no given point were their lips free from the smoke.”

Worse day of his life

Eze was killed on Oct. 18 at night. As usual, he was walking ahead of Olarewaju and Anthony Eze in the dark.

“I heard Godwin cry out in a very loud voice. One of the men flashed a torch light and I could see my brother standing in a pool of his blood. A big piece of wood had torn through his ankle, baring his flesh. As he struggled to remove the piece of wood from his leg with his hands tied behind his back, he stumbled and fell into a large pit,” Olarewaju said.

Badly injured, Eze could not walk again. This aggravated the kidnappers’ anger given that their negotiations for ransom were not going as they wanted.

“That night, the beating was worse than the previous occasions. The men had kept threatening us that they were going to kill us. That night, we knew they were going to make good their threats” Olarewaju said. “I heard one of the men cock their guns. I said a prayer: ‘Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.’ A shot was fired. It was Godwin that they shot.”

Olarewaju described the killing of Eze as the worst day of his life.

“Anthony and I were so mad. We screamed at the men, begging them to kill us. We couldn’t take the torture anymore,” he said.

Eze was murdered on the edge of a fast flowing river. His two companions were then forced to throw his body into the river. 

“We tried our best to refuse amid the beating they gave us,” Olarewaju recalled. “After a while, we signaled each other, held the body of our brother Godwin by the arm and leg, and tried to jump into the river with the body. Anthony jumped in first but was quickly pulled out. After that, he received a thorough beating for it.”

“I couldn’t sleep on the day that my brother Godwin was killed. The men promised to kill me on Thursday and to kill Anthony on Friday unless they received money from our families who they had roped into their evil negotiations,” Olarewaju said, adding that the men had dozens of mobile phones and a solar panel that kept their communication with the monastery flowing.

Asked what kept them going, Olarewaju said: “We stuck to our prayers. In fact, it was Bother Godwin’s idea that we continue with our mental prayers. We would signal each other to pray silently since the men didn’t want to hear the mention of the name ‘Jesus.’”

The Benedictine monastery is located in Kwara state, which is bordered by Kogi and Niger states. By Oct.  21, Olarewaju and Anthony Eze had walked up to the Kogi border, miles away from their community. As they approached Kogi, the negotiations between their abductors and their monastery had a breakthrough and they were released.

“We were in a very bad shape,” Olarewaju said. “I could look at brother Anthony and see that he was on the verge of death.”

“I remember taking the back seat on the bus since I was smelling very bad. I hadn’t brushed my teeth for five days. I hadn’t taken a bath and definitely, I hadn’t had a change of clothes,” he said.

Olarewaju said the October ordeal at the hands of his kidnappers has strengthened his faith. 

Prepared to die a martyr

“I joined the monastery hoping to make it to heaven,” he stated. “After my kidnapping and the horrors I encountered, it has become clear to me that I want something more. I am prepared to die a martyr in this dangerous country. I am ready anytime to die for Jesus. I feel this very strongly.”

The monk said he has fond memories of Eze, who has also been described as easygoing and prayerful.

“Brother Godwin was my senior in the monastery. He guided me on many occasions,” Olarewaju recalled. “I sometimes sat next to him in the oratory and he would help me open the prayer book. Some days, as I fumbled with the prayer book, he would sense my struggles and give me his already opened book. He would then take mine and quickly open the page and join the rest of us in the praying or singing. He was that loving and caring. I have no doubt that brother Godwin is in heaven.”

This story was first published by ACI Africa, CNA’s news partner in Africa, and has been adapted by CNA.

Pope to Orthodox patriarch: ‘Bonds of faith, hope and charity’ unite two churches

Pope Francis meets with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at the Vatican on Oct. 4, 2021. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, Nov 30, 2023 / 11:13 am (CNA).

On the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Pope Francis sent a message to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople expressing his “fraternal affection” and reflecting on the “deep bonds of faith, hope, and charity” between the two churches.

The pope opened the letter by focusing on the journey of reconciliation between the two churches, noting that the feast of St. Andrew precedes the historic meeting between Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in Jerusalem in January 1964.

“That encounter was a vital step forward in breaking down the barrier of misunderstanding, distrust, and even hostility that had existed for almost a millennium. It is noteworthy that today we remember not so much the words and statements of those two prophetic pastors but above all their warm embrace,” the pope said in his letter. 

“The example of Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras shows us that all authentic paths to the restoration of full communion among the Lord’s disciples are characterized by personal contact and time spent together,” Francis continued. 

That meeting was an inflection point in the Catholic-Orthodox relationship, from one of estrangement to one of dialogue, as it was the first time since 1483 that a pope and an ecumenical patriarch met. 

Pope Francis also noted that “it is highly significant that this journey of reconciliation, increasing closeness, and overcoming of obstacles still impeding full visible communion began with an embrace, a gesture that eloquently expresses the mutual recognition of ecclesial fraternity.”

Pope Francis every year sends a message on the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle to the ecumenical patriarch, who is the successor of St. Andrew and the “first among equals” in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

This year the pope expressed his “gratitude” and thanked the patriarch for his attendance at the ecumenical prayer vigil ahead of the opening of October’s Synod on Synodality. In a press release before the event, the Holy See said that the vigil was prepared in order to “emphasize the centrality of prayer in the synodal process, which is a spiritual process” and “underline the articulation between the synodal path and the ecumenical path.”

“Your personal support and that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, expressed also through the participation of a fraternal delegate in the work of the assembly, are a great source of encouragement for the fruitful continuation of the ongoing synodal process in the Catholic Church,” Pope Francis said in his letter. 

The prayer vigil was also attended by other religious leaders including Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, Coptic Pope Tawadros II, and Pastor Anne Burghardt of the Lutheran World Federation. 

In Instrumentum Laboris, the Vatican’s working document that guided Synod on Synodality discussions, the theme of ecumenism featured prominently. 

“Indeed, both synodality and ecumenism are rooted in the baptismal dignity of the entire people of God. Together they invite renewed commitment to the vision of a missionary synodal Church. They are processes of listening and dialogue and invite us to grow in a communion that is not uniformity but unity in legitimate diversity. They highlight the need for a spirit of co-responsibility, since our decisions and actions at different levels affect all members of the body of Christ. They are spiritual processes of repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a dialogue of conversion that can lead to a healing of memory,” the document reads. 

Francis closed his Nov. 30 letter by writing that both churches are “in service to humanity, especially those affected by poverty, violence, and exploitation.” The Holy Father implored for peace. 

“Let us fervently pray to God, our merciful Father, that the clamor of arms, which brings only death and destruction, may cease, and that government and religious leaders may always seek the path of dialogue and reconciliation,” he wrote.

Nicaraguan dictatorship releases new photos, video of imprisoned Bishop Álvarez

Some photographs of Nicaraguan Bishop Rolando Álvarez disseminated by the dictatorship of Nicaragua in November 2023. / Credit: Ministry of the Interior of Nicaragua

ACI Prensa Staff, Nov 30, 2023 / 09:30 am (CNA).

In response to demands for proof that Bishop Rolando Álvarez is still alive, the Nicaraguan dictatorship’s Ministry of the Interior released new images of the prelate, who was sentenced to 26 years and four months in prison in February, accused of being “a traitor to the homeland.” 

The measure was strongly criticized by Bishop Silvio Báez, who pointed out that the video and photos do not justify the regime’s crime.

Báez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua living in exile, wrote on X on Nov. 28 that the dictatorship shouldn’t think “that with their cynical language and with photos and videos of dubious authenticity they are going to justify their crime and silence us.”

“Bishop Rolando Álvarez is INNOCENT and we will continue to shout this injustice before the world. He must be released immediately and without conditions!” he exclaimed.

Other images had been previously released by the dictatorship in March, when various activists and institutions demanded, as they have been doing recently, proof that the bishop of Matagalpa was still alive.

In a Nov. 28 press release, the Ministry of the Interior stated that the video and photos show that “the conditions of [Álvarez’s] confinement are preferential and that the regimen of doctor’s appointments is strictly complied with as well as family visits, the sending and receiving of packages, contrary to what slanderous campaigns try to make you believe.”

The statement also says that the Ministry of the Interior “will continue to fulfill its duty to safely hold Rolando Álvarez in the conditions that ensure his rights in every sense.”

Also shown are photos dating from March 25, May 13, July 28, Aug. 31, Oct. 2, and Nov. 2, where he is seen with his brothers, and other photos where he appears to be receiving medical care.

Images raise renewed concerns

The video shows the thinner, motionless prisoner seated as he blankly stares at a TV set in a living room with furniture and a table with various items on it.

Martha Patricia Molina — lawyer, researcher, and author of the report “Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?” — also questioned the images: “The same setting serves as a clinic, living room, dining room. Can someone explain that to me? Do they only change things around for photos?”

Félix Maradiaga, deported former presidential candidate and president of the Nicaraguan Freedom Foundation living in exile in the United States, dismissed the images released by the Nicaraguan dictatorship and expressed his concern for the bishop, noting that these were “presented as a response to complaints about the inhumane and arbitrary conditions of his imprisonment and are a clear attempt to distort reality."

Nicaraguan academic and political activist Felix Maradiaga speaks during an interview with AFP in Managua on Feb. 11, 2021. Credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images
Nicaraguan academic and political activist Felix Maradiaga speaks during an interview with AFP in Managua on Feb. 11, 2021. Credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images

“We understand that these photographs do not reflect the true situation of Bishop Álvarez. Their appearance, coinciding with international efforts demanding proof he’s alive and the pronouncements of important entities such as the United States Congress and the European Parliament, demonstrates the dictatorship’s intention to create a false impression of normality,” he stressed in a statement sent to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner.

Maradiaga urged the international community to remain “vigilant” and “not be fooled by these maneuvers.” At the same time he asked it “to continue demanding the immediate and just release of Bishop Rolando Álvarez and all political prisoners in Nicaragua. The fight for justice and truth must continue relentlessly.”

In 2021 in the midst of running for president, Maradiaga was arrested by the Ortega regime and spent 20 months in prison before he was deported to the U.S. in February along with 221 other political prisoners in a deal with the U.S. State Department.

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

Pope Francis says he has ‘very acute infectious bronchitis’

Pope Francis meets participants in the Ethics of Healthcare Management seminar on Nov. 30, 2023. / Credit: Vatican Media

Vatican City, Nov 30, 2023 / 08:15 am (CNA).

Pope Francis told health care professionals on Thursday that he has “very acute infectious bronchitis” and was advised not to travel to Dubai to avoid the extreme change in temperature.

The pope, who will turn 87 on Dec. 17, quipped, “As you can see, I am alive,” as he met participants in a health care ethics seminar in a morning audience at the Vatican.

“Thank God it wasn’t pneumonia. It is a very acute, infectious bronchitis. I do not have a fever anymore, but am still on antibiotics and such,” Pope Francis said on Nov. 30.

Despite feeling under the weather, the pope maintained a very full schedule on Thursday with nine official meetings scheduled for the morning, including an audience with the International Theological Commission, bishops from Canada, and German Bishop Heiner Wilmer of Hildesheim.

The Vatican has described the pope’s health condition as “influenza” with “lung inflammation” that has caused him some “breathing difficulties.”

Acute bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways leading into the lungs (called bronchi) that can be caused by the same viruses as the flu but may also be caused by a bacterial infection.

Bronchitis is a different, but common complication of influenza that can cause a nagging cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, and chest pain. Acute bronchitis can be contagious, according to the Mayo Clinic.

A CT scan at a Rome hospital on Nov. 25 “ruled out pneumonia,” according to the Vatican.

On Nov. 28, Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said that the pope’s doctors had advised him not to travel to Dubai this week for the United Nations COP28 climate conference because the pope had “the flu and inflammation of the respiratory tract.”

Pope Francis himself explained the decision on Thursday in his off-the-cuff remarks in Spanish to the health care seminar.

“The doctor did not let me go to Dubai. The reason is that it is very hot there, and you go from heat to air conditioning,” he said, noting that this temperature change would not be good for his “bronchial condition.”

Pope Francis was hospitalized in March due to a respiratory infection and complained that he was not feeling well on Nov. 6, following which the Vatican said that the pope had “a bit of a cold.”

In his brief speech to the Ethics of Healthcare Management seminar, Pope Francis said that he was a fan of “preventive medicine.”

“Health is like a contrary thing; it is strong and fragile ... Poorly cared for health gives way to fragility. I like preventive medicine very much because it prevents before events occur,” Pope Francis said.

“I thank you for coming and forgive me for not being able to talk anymore, but I don’t have the energy,” he added.