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French bishops press government to review 30-person Mass limit

Rome Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 07:00 am (CNA).- After a strong reaction by French Catholics to the government’s decision Tuesday night to limit Mass attendance to 30 people per church during Advent, bishops are in negotiations with the government to determine a more “realistic gauge” for a gradual resumption of public Masses.

The French bishops’ conference issued a statement Nov. 24, saying that the bishops were “both disappointed and surprised” at President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement that public worship would be limited to 30 people per church.

“This announcement is not at all in line with the discussions that have taken place in recent weeks with the ministers concerned,” it said.

“Indeed, this unrealistic and inapplicable measure is completely disrespectful of the reality of the religious practice of Catholics.”

The French bishops had originally proposed a protocol of reopening public liturgies at a third of each church’s capacity, with increased social distancing. 

Following Macron’s announcement, some bishops took to social media to express their incredulity.

Bishop François Touvet of Châlons wrote on Twitter: “30 people in my cathedral is ridiculous and absurd. It is 96 m long and 25 m wide (40m transept) by 30 m high. Total = 2500 m²: with 4 m² per person, we can fit 600 people! You have to learn to count!”


30 personnes dans ma cathédrale, c’est ridicule et absurde. Elle fait 96 m de long et 25 m de large (transept 40m) sur 30 m de hauteur. Total = 2500 m² : avec 4 m² par personne, on peut mettre 600 personnes ! Il faut apprendre à compter !

— MgrTouvet (@MgrTouvet) November 24, 2020  

Bishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort, president of the French bishops’ conference, spoke on the telephone with President Macron later that evening.

Following the phone call, the French bishops announced Nov. 25 that a more “realistic gauge” for the resumption of public Masses would be determined by the government the following day.

France has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than two million recorded cases and over 50,000 deaths as of Nov. 25, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The reassessed restrictions on public Masses are expected be introduced in two stages, with the undetermined restrictions “remaining strict” from Nov. 28. They will then be evaluated on Dec. 15, according to the bishops’ statement.

French bishops added that they would remain in “dialogue with the office of the Prime Minister and the Ministry of the Interior.”

France has been under a strict lockdown since the end of October, in which all public religious gatherings, including public Masses, were originally suspended until Dec. 1.

French bishops announced Nov. 2 that they were filing an urgent appeal with the Council of State to continue public Masses, arguing that the government’s coronavirus lockdown decree was “out of proportion” and “violates the freedom of worship which is one of the fundamental freedoms in our country.”

The bishops’ appeal was rejected by the Council of State on Nov. 7. But, in response, the judge specified that churches would remain open and that Catholics would be able visit a church near their homes regardless of distance if they carried out the necessary paperwork. Priests would also be allowed to visit people in their homes and chaplains permitted to visit hospitals.

Catholics took to the streets in major cities across the country to protest against the public Mass ban, praying together outside their churches. 

The French bishops said on Tuesday that Macron’s decision to reauthorize public worship with a limitation of 30 people seemed to “ignore this sense of responsibility which they [Catholics] have already demonstrated since the start of the epidemic.”

“Catholics are aware of the health issues and are capable of showing full responsibility in the application of the rules of protection,” they said.

“The Advent season which opens before us is a fundamental time of preparation for Christmas. The Sunday gathering is an essential step for the faithful during this period.”

‘We had no idea’: The hidden life of the reputed stigmatist tortured by Stalin’s secret police

CNA Staff, Nov 25, 2020 / 06:00 am (CNA).- Sr. Wanda Boniszewska led an extraordinary life. The Polish nun was a reputed stigmatist tortured by Stalin’s secret police. Her spiritual journal, published after her death in 2003, recorded her astounding mystical experiences. Her beatification cause opened earlier this month. 

But to one religious sister who lived with her in the last years of her life, Boniszewska didn’t seem outwardly remarkable.  

Sr. Halina Skubisz belongs to the same congregation as Boniszewska: the Congregation of the Sisters of the Angels, a habitless religious community founded in 1889. She lived twice under the same roof as the mystic, first in 1988 and then for a few years from 1997. 

“Sr. Wanda was a person who did not stand out from among our older sisters,” Skubisz told CNA. 

She described the frail and elderly Boniszewska as “rather withdrawn.” As she was bed-ridden and suffering from progressive dementia by the late 1990s, the younger sisters had limited access to her.

“What I remember is that I felt the atmosphere of peace in her room, as if the world around me was slowing down,” Skubisz recalled. “In her suffering, she was essentially calm, reconciled with the Lord’s will. Sometimes the younger sisters told me that they would come to Sr. Wanda when they needed to calm down...”

The younger sisters had no inkling of the exceptional nature of Boniszewska’s spiritual life. Her spirituality centered on offering her sufferings for the expiation of sins, especially those of priests.

At the age of 16, she had sought to enter the Congregation of the Sisters of the Angels in Vilnius, nowadays the capital of Lithuania. After her first profession, she said that she received a mission from Jesus to offer her sufferings for the expiation of the sins of “souls consecrated to Me.” She made her full profession in 1933. 

“The superiors knew her special graces and spiritual experiences and some of the older sisters also heard something about it, but we in the younger generation had no idea. Only after Wanda’s death did the secret come to light,” Skubisz said. 

She explained that when Christ had entrusted Boniszewska with her mission, which required her to share in the experience of his Passion, she asked to remain hidden and unknown until she died.

Boniszewska had asked her superiors to keep her secret and it was only after her death that Fr. Jan Pryszmont, who was close to her, began to publish works about her life and mission. Her “Spiritual Journal,” issued in 2016, recorded her mystical experiences between 1921 and 1980. 

A turning point in Boniszewska’s life came on April 11, 1950, the day she was arrested by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB.

Skubisz said that the Soviet secret police seized the nun in connection with the arrest of a Jesuit priest, Fr. Antoni Ząbek. Boniszewska was then living in a community in Pryciany, around 20 miles from Vilnius. The authorities identified Ząbek as a Vatican spy seeking to undermine the Soviet Union. 

The priest served the sisters while hiding in a separate location in an underground shelter. When he was arrested, the police found documents in the shelter relating to Sr. Wanda and the Congregation of the Sisters of the Angels. The NKVD arrested 20 of the sisters, including Boniszewska. 

“From the beginning she was considered a charlatan, a false saint and an enemy of the system,” Skubisz noted. 

During interrogations, her captors beat her head against the wall, kicked her legs out from under her and forced her to stand all night answering questions. 

The ill treatment took its toll: she was transferred to a hospital, but the questioning continued. When she felt better, she would be taken on a stretcher for further interrogation. 

Finally, she was judged in absentia and sentenced to 10 years in a correctional camp as a Vatican spy and enemy of the system.

She was sent first to Chelyabinsk, in west-central Russia, then to Magnitogorsk, near the northern edge of the Russian steppe, and from there to the Urals. She spent much of her time in camp hospitals because of the injuries inflicted during interrogations and because of bleeding from her stigmata. 

Skubisz said: “This aroused consternation among the doctors. Some refused treatment, others carried out experiments including electroshocks.” 

“The interrogations were brutal, with the beating of the head against the wall and kicks. Many times she was condemned to stay in a cell and locked up in the ward of the mentally ill.” 

When she went into ecstasies, Sr. Wanda would say the names of people she prayed for. They included Stalin, the NKVD official Viktor Abakumov and the notorious secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria.

“This became the reason for the great brutality of the interrogators, their anxiety and curiosity,” Skubisz said.

She explained that Boniszewska inspired conversions among those who came into contact with her, including medical personnel and even her interrogators.

Boniszewska traced her stigmata back to the day of her First Communion, Sept. 29, 1919, when she began to feel pain in her hands and legs. In 1927, she felt pain around her head, while the discomfort in her limbs diminished. Her suffering would peak during Masses. 

According to her testimony, external marks of the stigmata appeared in Advent 1934 on her hands and legs. There was also a diagonal wound on her side. She attempted to hide them, but a priest noticed them while giving her the sacrament of the anointing of the sick in January 1935. In April of the same year, a religious sister who was also a nurse saw the wounds. But despite the nurse’s questions, Sr. Wanda remained silent.

“Before she was arrested in 1950, the external stigmata began to disappear, and appeared sporadically in prison, less often after she was released and returned to Poland,” said Skubisz. 

Commentators have drawn parallels between Boniszewska and St. Faustina Kowalska. Both were Polish religious sisters who experienced the upheavals of the 20th century and left written records of their intense spiritual experiences. But Skubisz believes that, despite these surface similarities, the two are quite different. 

She said: “Each of them had their own mission and unique relationship with the Lord. True, both were chosen and there are other similarities, but I do not think there are similarities between their diaries.” 

Skubisz pointed out that Sr. Wanda did not keep a spiritual diary as such. She wrote her memoirs retrospectively in obedience to a request from her superiors. While priests who came into contact with her made detailed records, she asked them to allow her to remain hidden and not to share the information until after her death. 

Skubisz believes that Sr. Wanda’s spirituality, with its focus on prayer for struggling priests, is highly relevant to the Church today. The opening of her beatification cause coincided with a series of high-profile clerical abuse cases in the Polish Church.

“I believe that the current experience we are going through as a Church is a cry for witnesses. Sister Wanda can be such a witness,” she said. 

“The Lord Jesus revealed her mission to her gradually: ‘for unfaithful priests, sacrifice yourself; you are the chosen sacrifice for priests and religious orders; I desire suffering; prayer without suffering is dead; I allow winds to strengthen faith in you and priests; I am the infallible truth in the holy Church; Believe, ask, trust, write, remain close. I make greater demands on you, because love expands the heart. Through you, I must pour Love out upon priests.’”

Skubisz continued: “Today Satan strikes priests with particular force. We know that a priest is for us believers a gateway to the sacraments, to the Eucharist, and without them no one will be strong in the spiritual struggle.” 

“That is why the message received by Sr. Wanda about the special dignity and great love that Christ gives to priests is so timely. Jesus desires their closeness and holiness, He is ready to forgive them and to bestow graces to draw them to His Divine Heart.”

She added: “Sr. Wanda had to suffer for the infidelity of priests and religious people, for the lukewarm and cold priests, for religious orders, including our Congregation, for the fading faith in His presence, for the sins of impurity. And as I described above, it was a very particular suffering. How timely this prayer and plea for strength are today.”

Skubisz said that the dialogue between Boniszewska and Christ recorded in her journal underlined how much Jesus loved priests and religious.  

“It is a great strengthening and call to faithfulness,” she said. “It is also a new light on the greatness and dignity of the priestly state, which is now so weakened. But at the same time, her suffering, its immensity, the brutality of her interrogation, the misunderstanding she suffered, show that sin is not a bagatelle. Sin costs and it costs a lot. It cost her a lot of suffering, a lot of blood…”

“I really believe that this message is extremely important and brings a lot of hope at this time. It rekindles gratitude, admiration for the love of God, in spite of everything and without limits. It is also a call to reparation for our sins and for the sins of others, to ask for mercy.”

World’s oldest bishop dies in Spain at age 104

Rome Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 05:00 am (CNA).- Bishop Damián Iguacén Borau died Tuesday at his residence in Huesca in northeastern Spain. He was 104 years old.

After the death in June of 104-year-old Chilean Bishop Bernardino Piñera from pneumonia due to COVID-19, Iguacén was the oldest living Catholic bishop in the world. 

Iguacén’s last public appearance was in February for his 104th birthday. According to reports, his health had been in sharp decline since then.

The Diocese of Huesca said that his funeral would take place Nov. 26 in the Holy Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Lord in the city of Huesca. Iguacén will then be buried in the cathedral’s Capilla del Pópulo.

An important figure in the Church in Aragon, Iguacén retired in 1991 after seven years as bishop of the Diocese of San Cristóbal de La Laguna o Tenerife in the Canary Islands. In his 22 years as a bishop, he also led the dioceses of Barbastro and Teruel.

Iguacén was born in the small town of Fuencalderas in Aragon on Feb. 12, 1916. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Huesca in 1941, at the age of 25. In addition to serving as a parish priest, he was also the vice chancellor of a seminary in San Lorenzo and was apostolic administrator of Huesca for a short time.

He held various positions within the executive committee of the Spanish bishops’ conference. He also wrote several books and articles, especially on the cultural heritage of the Church and Marian devotion.

At a Mass and celebration for his 100th birthday in 2016, Bishop José María Gil Tamayo, the then secretary general of the Spanish bishops’ conference, said that Iguacén was “an example of dedication to the Church. In him, over the years, remains that evangelical freshness of a shepherd, his delicacy, his affection, his closeness to the people, which in the background is the closeness to God that he has maintained.”

Pope Francis also sent a message for Iguacén’s 100th birthday, saying that he joined spiritually “in thanksgiving to God for the gifts received in his long life as a pastor and generous service to the Church,” assuring him “of a remembrance in his prayers so that the Lord may always accompany him in his goodness and grant him an abundance of peace and spiritual serenity.”

Philadelphia archdiocese opens home for young adults with disabilities

Denver Newsroom, Nov 25, 2020 / 04:49 am (CNA).- A Philadelphia bishop last month blessed Saint Philomena Cottage, a new archdiocesan home for young adults with disabilities.

Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre, who oversees the Secretariat for Catholic Human Services of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, led the blessing Oct. 23 at the facility in Delaware County.

The event occurred a few months after new renovations permitted residence to three new clients who had difficulty finding a home that matched their complex needs.

Present at the event were James Amato, secretary for Catholic Human Services; members of The Women’s Auxiliary of St. Edmond’s Home for Children; and Denise Clofine, administrator for Saint Edmond’s Home for Children.

During the ceremony, Clofine expressed gratitude for the completion of the project and for the support of the Women’s Auxiliary, who helped fund the project.

“Today is the beginning of a long held dream to have a home like Saint Philomena Cottage where those we serve can continue to be with friends and staff who have become family. There is true love and compassion shared between the two,” she said, according to a Nov. 10 statement from the archdiocese.

“I am deeply grateful to the Women’s Auxiliary who exemplify a deep commitment to our mission. Sometimes in life we are fortunate to meet someone who makes a difference in the lives of others.  I have been truly blessed to have met an entire group of women who exemplify dedication, care, and love. Their legacy is so very admirable.”

St. Edmond’s Home for Children purchased the house in November 2017. The house was renovated to include wheelchair accessible bathrooms, doorways, ramps, and elevator lifts.

The renovations were completed over the summer and three ladies from St. Edmond’s Home moved into their house at the end of July. The facility includes a 24-hour nurse and activities such as arts, crafts, cooking, and baking.

Clofine told CNA that it has been more difficult for clients with complex disabilities to find permanent homes after they turned 21. She said the facility was established at the request of parents, and added that families have formed meaningful bonds with the staff of St. Edmond’s Home for Children.

“They have trusted us with their children and their children have been placed [with us] for 10, 15, sometimes 20 years. To have to then take their child to another placement, it’s very, very difficult,” she said.

“We took our best staff - very committed, dedicated. We did not hire from the outside for this hall, [but moved] staff over to the hall who already knew those three young adults really well.”

Saint Edmond’s Home for Children was founded in 1916 by Archbishop Edmond Prendergast to help children with polio. It operates under Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Service and provides intermediate care for children and young adults with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Clofine expressed the importance of providing services to vulnerable individuals in the community. She said the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has a history of charitable service and further added that it was a blessing to open the facility during the pandemic.

“This really has made my whole year, especially in the midst of COVID, we were able to open. It was wonderful,” she said.

“It is our responsibility to do God's work. It is extremely important to help the most vulnerable in our community … We're just so thrilled to be able to do this not only for the three young ladies that are in the hall, but for their families,” she said.

Pope Francis: ‘The Church is the work of the Holy Spirit’

Vatican City, Nov 25, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Catholics risk going astray if they neglect the four essential characteristics of Church life, Pope Francis said at the general audience Wednesday.

In his address Nov. 25, the pope said that the four fundamental qualities were present in the early Church as described in the Book of Acts. They were listening to the apostles’ teaching, the safeguarding of mutual communion, the breaking of the bread, and prayer.

“Any situation needs to be evaluated in the light of these four coordinates. Whatever is not part of these coordinates lacks ecclesiality, it is not ecclesial,” he said. 

“It is God who creates the Church, not the clamour of works. The Church is not a market; the Church is not a group of businesspeople who go forward with a new business. The Church is the work of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus sent to us to gather us together.” 

In his audience address, the pope continued his cycle of catechesis on prayer, which he began in May. Speaking via livestream from the library of the Apostolic Palace due to coronavirus restrictions, he noted that the first Christians did not neglect prayer, even though they were “on the move.”

“The image of the early Community of Jerusalem is the point of reference for every other Christian experience. Luke writes in the Book of Acts: ‘And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (2:42). The community persevered in prayer,” he explained.

“We find here four essential characteristics of ecclesial life: listening to the apostles’ teaching, first; second, the safeguarding of mutual communion; third, the breaking of the bread; and fourth, prayer.” 

He continued: “They remind us that the Church’s existence has meaning if it remains firmly united to Christ, that is, in community, in His Word, in the Eucharist and in prayer -- the way we unite ourselves to Christ.”

“Preaching and catechesis bear witness to the words and actions of the Teacher; the constant quest for fraternal communion shields us from selfishness and particularisms; the breaking of the bread fulfils the sacrament of Jesus’ presence among us. He will never be absent -- particularly in the Eucharist, He is there. He lives and walks with us. And lastly, prayer, which is the space of dialogue with the Father, through Christ in the Holy Spirit.”

The pope added: “Everything in the Church that grows outside of these ‘coordinates’ lacks a foundation. To discern a situation, we need to ask ourselves about these four coordinates: how in this situation these four coordinates are present -– the preaching, the constant search for fraternal communion, charity, the breaking of the bread (that is, the Eucharistic life), and prayer.” 

Speaking off the cuff, the pope said it pained him when he encountered communities that neglected the four authentic hallmarks of the Church.

“At times, I feel tremendous sadness when I see a community that has good will, but takes the wrong road because it thinks that the Church is built up in meetings, as if it were a political party,” he said. 

“‘But, the majority, the minority, what do they think about this, that and the other… And this is like a synod, the synodal path that we must take…’ I ask myself: ‘But where is the Holy Spirit there? Where is prayer? Where is communitarian love? Where is the Eucharist?’” 

“Without these four coordinates, the Church becomes a human society, a political party -- majority, minority -- changes are made as if it were a company, according to majority or minority… But the Holy Spirit is not there. And the presence of the Holy Spirit is precisely guaranteed by these four coordinates.”

The four coordinates can be used to judge whether a situation is truly ecclesial, he said. If any of the coordinates is lacking, then the Holy Spirit will also be absent. 

“If this is lacking, the Holy Spirit is lacking, and if the Holy Spirit is lacking, we are a beautiful organization, humanitarian, doing good things, good, good… even an ecclesial party, let’s put it that way. But it is not the Church,” he said. 

“It is for this reason that the Church does not grow with these things: it does not grow through proselytism, as any other company, it grows by attraction. And who provokes attraction? The Holy Spirit.” 

“Let us never forget Benedict XVI’s words: ‘The Church does not grow through proselytizing, she grows by attraction.’ If the Holy Spirit is lacking, who is the one who attracts [people] to Jesus, the Church is not there. There might be a beautiful friendship club, good, with good intentions, but not the Church, not synodality.”

Pope Francis noted that in the Acts of the Apostles, prayer gatherings were a “powerful driving force of evangelization.”

He said: “The members of the first community -- although this always applies, even to us today -- sensed that the narrative of the encounter with Jesus did not stop at the moment of the Ascension, but continued in their life. In recounting what the Lord said and did -- listening to the Word -- in praying to enter into communion with Him, everything became alive.”

Like the first Christians, believers today can also be inspired by the Holy Spirit in prayer, the pope added.

“And every Christian who is not afraid to devote time to prayer can make his or her own the words of the Apostle Paul, who says this: ‘the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20).”

“Prayer makes you aware of this. Only in the silence of adoration do we experience the whole truth of these words. And we must recapture this sense of adoration. To adore, to adore God, to adore Jesus, to adore the Spirit. The Father, the Son and the Spirit: to adore. In silence.” 

“The prayer of adoration is that prayer that makes us recognize God as the beginning and the end of all of History. And this prayer is the living flame of the Spirit that gives strength to witness and to mission.”