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Denial of clemency to death row inmate disappoints Oklahoma archbishop

null / California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0).

Denver Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 18:00 pm (CNA).

One day after a parole board denied clemency to death row inmate Benjamin Cole, the Archbishop of Oklahoma City registered his disappointment in the decision.

“The denial of clemency by the Pardon and Parole Board is disappointing as there is hardly any justice to be seen in taking the life of a man who is hardly able to speak and lacks the basic understanding of why the state is seeking his execution,” Archbishop Paul Coakley said Sept. 28.

“While it is too late to provide Benjamin Cole with any care or treatment that might have prevented his crime almost 20 years ago, we still have an obligation to recognize the dignity bestowed upon him by God, and the effects of his debilitating mental illness.”

Cole, the archbishop said, “should be allowed to live out what remains of his life in the hope that he receives the mental health care he should have received decades ago. Pray for the victims of violence and their families that God brings them comfort and peace. Pray for the soul of the condemned and those who will be involved with his execution.”

The Pardon and Parole Board voted 4-1 to deny clemency to Cole, 57, on Sept. 27.

In 2002 Cole killed his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna.

His attorneys maintained that Cole is “severely mentally ill and that he has a growing lesion on his brain,” the AP reported. The lawyers told the board that he has refused medical care and has little or no communication with others.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor welcomed the panel’s decision, saying that “Although his attorneys claim Cole is mentally ill to the point of catatonia, the fact is that Cole fully cooperated with a mental evaluation in July of this year. The evaluator, who was not hired by Cole or the State, found Cole to be competent to be executed and that ‘Mr. Cole does not currently evidence any substantial, overt signs of mental illness, intellectual impairment, and/or neurocognitive impairment.’”

Cole had been incarcerated previously for the abuse of another of his infant children, and prosecutors, according to the AP, “noted that [Brianna] had numerous injuries consistent with a history of abuse.”

Relatives of Brianna’s mother asked that the board deny clemency.

A county judge is due to decide whether a trial will be held to determine whether Cole is competent to be executed. 

The parole board having denied clemency, the Oklahoma governor is unable to commute Cole’s sentence. Cole is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Oct. 20.

While the Church teaches that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have condemned the practice in the West.

Regarding the execution of criminals, the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that by its “legal and judicious exercise” civil authorities “punish the guilty and protect the innocent.”

St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

And Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

In August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s paragraph regarding capital punishment.

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Reasons for changing the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA at the time that he thinks this change “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”

“Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church,” Fr. Petri continued.

Supreme Court Justice Alito: faith ‘should affect the way you treat people’ as a judge

U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Alito / Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 16:45 pm (CNA).

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito — author of the deciding opinion that overturned Roe v. Wade — stressed the importance of his Catholic faith to serving on the highest court in the country Tuesday in a lecture to law students at the Catholic University of America (CUA).

“A person’s faith shapes what kind of person [he or she] is,” Alito said, adding “it also should affect the way you treat [people] when you’re serving as a judge.”

Alito’s inaugural lecture was given at the opening of CUA’s new Project on Constitutional Originalism and the Catholic Intellectual Tradition (CIT), a program started for students at the university’s Columbus School of Law.

CIT explores the relationship of Catholicism to American Constitutionalism, focusing on doctors of the church such as Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and secular thinkers such as Aristotle and Cicero.

Professor J. Joel Alicea, who co-directs the program, said in the lecture’s opening statement that the school believes the Catholic intellectual tradition “can help us better think through the challenges of our day.”

Alicea, who clerked for Justice Alito in 2016, introduced the justice as the honorary chair of the project’s advisory board to the reception of thundering applause.

The justice then gave remarks outlining how CUA’s project will consider how the Catholic faith relates to law but did not address the overturning of Roe or other controversial opinions from the summer.

When asked by a student how his personal faith affected his professional life, Alito pointed to how formative Catholicism is in shaping how a person treats other human beings.

“Among other things, [faith] shapes how a person regards other people and treats other people,” Alito responded.

“Judges affect people — indirectly, but sometimes very powerfully, through their decisions,” he continued. “It’s important to keep in mind that these decisions are not just abstract discussions. They have a real impact in the world and you have to keep that in mind.”

Alito authored the historic Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision that overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

“Roe was … egregiously wrong and on a collision course with the Constitution from the day it was decided,” Alito wrote in the decision’s opinion.

The decision denounced the claim that there is a “constitutional right to abortion” and returned the question of it to the states.

“Abortion presents a profound moral question,” the opinion concluded.

The son of Italian immigrants, Alito was born to a Catholic family in Trenton, New Jersey. He was a graduate of Princeton University and Yale Law School. After serving in positions for the Justice Department and as the U.S. attorney general for the district of New Jersey, he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President George W. Bush — a position he’s held since 2006.

Following this summer’s landmark decision overturning Roe, Alito and the other justices have faced virulent criticism both nationally and abroad, increased violence, and even death threats.

Alito dismissed some of these attacks in a speech at a Notre Dame conference in July.

“I had the honor this term of writing, I think, the only Supreme Court decision in the history of that institution that has been lambasted by a whole string of foreign leaders who felt perfectly fine commenting on American law,” Alito said.

Afghan refugees reunited with baby thanks to pro-life pregnancy center

null / Vulnerable People Project

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 15:51 pm (CNA).

On Tuesday night Benafsha and her husband, Mustafa, anxiously waited at Dulles International Airport for their son, 22-month-old Jasoor, to arrive from Afghanistan.

Benafsha tugged at her long brown hair nervously, and Mustafa held his wife close to him as they watched for their son to walk through the airport security exit and into their arms.

The last time they saw Jasoor was over a year ago — they had been separated from him for more than half his life.

An unexpected, tragic parting

On Aug. 26, 2021, the family was supposed to begin a new life together. 

Benafsha had served as a translator for coalition forces in Afghanistan, and when the U.S. withdrew its last troops from the country after more than 20 years, she was among the lucky ones granted Special Immigrant Visas to evacuate to the United States. 

While the family was waiting to board a flight to the U.S. at Kabul’s airport, a suicide bomber detonated explosives, killing more than 170 people. Jasoor was in the arms of his grandmother, and in the chaos that ensued, as soldiers exchanged gunfire with militants of the Islamic State – Korasan Province, the pair were separated from the baby’s parents. 

Benafsha and Mustafa, distraught but powerless in the face of a military operation reacting to a wartime situation, were forced to leave Kabul without Jasoor. The hope that they would soon be reunited and that by leaving they would best ensure their son’s safety sustained them as they departed without him.

A crisis pregnancy center says 'yes'

By December, however, that hope appeared to be fading. It had been almost four months since they had seen their son, and things were not going well. Jasoor and his grandmother were barely surviving on their own in Kabul — as the dead of winter approached, they were running out of coal and had little food. 

Things were no better for Benafsha and Mustafa, who were about to be evicted from the temporary housing they had found with a relative in Texas. Adding to the stressful situation, Benafsha was pregnant and in need of medical care.

Desperate for help, she contacted the Pflugerville Pregnancy Resource Center outside of Austin. Little did she know that this pro-life crisis pregnancy center would not only help her with her immediate needs, but it would be the means to seeing her son again.

Brittany Green, executive director of the pregnancy center, told CNA that when Benafsha came to them, they saw there were two critical issues facing the couple: medical care and housing. 

The clinic helped her get health insurance and made an appointment with the center’s medical director for OB-GYN care. 

Next came finding a place for the couple to live. While the pro-life pregnancy center offers counseling and health care to women in crisis pregnancies, there’s a lot more to the services they offer. 

“Our perception here is we come from a place of ‘yes.’ If it is something that we can do, we’re going to do it. If it’s something we can’t do, we’re going to find the people who can help us do it,” Green said. 

“The people that we serve often hear ‘no.’ And we don’t want them to come to us and hear another ‘no.’ So we will do everything in our power to make sure that their future and success is set up,” she explained.

With the help of Loveline Outreach Ministry and a local church, the Pflugerville pro-life clinic found Benafsha and Mustafa a hotel room for a month, and they helped Mustafa find a job. Then, through Texas Alliance for Life, she learned about Jason Jones’ work evacuating refugees in Afghanistan through the nonprofit he founded, the Vulnerable People Project (VPP). 

Green got in touch with Jones, who happened to be in Texas at the time, and arranged to have coffee with Jones, Benafsha, and Mustafa.  

Jones asked for Jasoor and his grandmother’s address, and within 24 hours a care package of coal and food was delivered to them in Kabul. He also helped make funds available for Benafsha and Mustafa to secure more permanent housing in Texas. VPP works with organizations in Afghanistan to provide much-needed services including food, health care, and education to those still in the country. 

‘Only God could make this happen’

In addition to providing aid in Afghanistan, the VPP has helped thousands of Afghan citizens obtain visas to leave their country and find a safe haven elsewhere. Jones set the wheels in motion to get Jasoor a visa to the U.S. 

Marilis Pineiro, the nonprofit’s legislative and diplomatic relations liaison, successfully lobbied the State Department to approve Jasoor’s visa after months of paperwork and negotiations. 

Since Jasoor is considered an infant, it was particularly difficult to get him a visa to travel without his parents, Pineiro told CNA. The State Department finally allowed his 24-year-old aunt a visa to accompany him.

Vulnerable People Project
Vulnerable People Project

While Pineiro has helped shepherd hundreds of Afghanis to safety, she said that reuniting Jasoor with his parents was an especially emotional experience for her.

“I’m still in shock because it was such a seemingly impossible task,” Pineiro told CNA. “I ask myself ‘How?’ and the answer is that only God could make that happen.”

Jones told CNA that getting the family back together again showed the important role pro-life pregnancy centers play in serving mothers and their families.

“I’m so grateful for the thousands of pregnancy centers across America that help women meet their needs. If not for this pro-life clinic reaching out to us, we never would have met Benafsha and Mustafa and been able to help them reunite with Jasoor,” he said.

When a curly-haired Jasoor, now a toddler, finally entered the international arrivals waiting area at Dulles Airport, his mother and father hugged him and kissed him as they thought they might never get a chance to see him again.

The last time they saw each was at another airport, and the circumstances could not have been more different. 

“This is the happiest day of my life,” Benafsha said, holding baby Helen in her arms, and Jasoor by his hand, as they set off to their new home in Virginia, a dream come true after so much sorrow and uncertainty. 

The family of four is together for the first time. Vulnerable People Project
The family of four is together for the first time. Vulnerable People Project

Vulnerable People Project
Vulnerable People Project

Salvadoran Education Ministry dismisses official who endorsed kids’ TV show with gender ideology

null / itakdalee/Shutterstock

San Salvador, El Salvador, Sep 28, 2022 / 14:38 pm (CNA).

El Salvador’s Ministry of Education has dismissed the official responsible for allowing a children’s program with gender ideology to be broadcast on national public television, following an uproar from parents.

The Ministry of Education (MINED) dismissed Sept. 26 the director of the National Teacher Training Institute (INFOD), Carlos Rodríguez Rivas, in wake of the controversy caused by a segment of the educational program “Let’s Learn at Home,” which introduced minors to the topics of homosexual, lesbian, and bisexual sexual orientation.

“The MINED has decided to carry out an in-depth restructuring of INFOD to promote changes that allow an education adhering to our reality and with the vision of this government ... We also inform you that the current director of INFOD has been removed from his position,” a Sept. 27 statement from the government explained.

“We are clear that we must always be vigilant for children, protect their mental health and promote family values that are the basis of Salvadoran society,” the MINED continued.

The ministry “also takes on the commitment to review all programs that come from abroad, so as to not allow materials that violate our principles or are contrary to the vision of the country we want to build.”

Hours before the announcement, El Salvador’s public television Channel 10 decided to terminate the agreement with INFOD “due to non-compliance with educational standards,” including the inclusion of “unauthorized sexual content.”

The Parents’ Alliance, a civil society movement in defense of the family in El Salvador, welcomed the removal of the director of INFOD.

“This was thanks to the complaints from all the committed families and parents in El Salvador. This precedent makes it clear to us that the Parental PIN must be a reality, we must protect our children from ideologies contrary to human dignity,” the parents group said on its social media.

The concept of a Parental PIN is that parents of schoolchildren must be informed in advance by the school of any workshop, talk, subject, or activity dealing with topics of sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, feminism, or diversity, and can then give or withhold their consent.

Sara Larín, founder of the VIDA SV Foundation in El Salvador, told ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language sister news agency, on Sept. 27 that the dismissal of the director of INFOD “is good news for all good Salvadorans who have denounced the perverse Social Studies material, not only in the Channel 10 program, but in the textbooks given to children.”

Larín charged that the content in children’s textbooks still “talks about terms such as sexual orientation, sexual identity, sexual pleasure, eroticism, and masturbation from a gender ideology perspective.”

According to the pro-life leader, teaching this type of material “puts students at risk of sexual and emotional abuse when a public school teacher dares to address these issues with minors without the consent of their parents.”

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

40 Days for Life in Spain announces guidelines amid government harassment of pro-lifers

null / Image credit: 40 days for life

Denver Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 13:30 pm (CNA).

The first 40 Days for Life campaign in Spain since the government criminalized what is deemed harassment at abortion businesses by pro-lifers begins today and ends Nov. 6. 

In response to the new legislation, which amended the Penal Code and went into effect in April, the campaign of prayer and fasting announced on its website a series of guidelines to avoid being arrested.

The amended code establishes “a prison sentence of three months to one year or community service from 31 to 80 days” for whoever undermines the freedom of women at an abortion center.

The law penalizes anyone who “in order to hinder the exercise of the right to voluntary interruption of pregnancy harasses a woman through annoying, offensive, intimidating, or coercive acts that undermine her freedom.”

40 Days for Life reminded its volunteers that “prayer saves lives” and that their mission is to “pray peacefully, so that at no time can there be an act of harassment.”

The prayer movement advises participants to exclusively use a sign reading “You are not alone, we can help you,” and if possible to identify themselves with the 40 Days for Life official wear.

Participants are cautioned about the presence of people not part of 40 Days for Life: “Make sure your fellow time slot members have signed up for the vigil. If you don’t know someone in your time slot, try to focus on prayer and limit your conversation.”

The organization stressed that “now more than ever” it is necessary to maintain “exemplary behavior” in such a way that in case of verbal aggression to not respond and to continue praying.

If the situation persists, the participant should notify the “captain” responsible for the time slot and call the police. If possible, a video of the situation should be taken with a mobile phone “but not forwarded.”

In case of physical aggression, the police should be called.

It’s not uncommon for abortion center owners to notify the police of the presence of pro-lifers near their businesses, so in this case, it is recommended that everyone interact with the police in such a way that “there is no leading voice.”

If the police ask for identification, it’s recommended to ask the reason in a polite way and to show the National Identity Document.

40 Days for Life also foresees that a police officer may state that either someone can’t be at that place praying or that “praying is a crime.” In that case, participants are urged to be polite but to question such a statement and ask why he or she can’t be there, for example: “What am I doing wrong?” or “How should I act?”

In the event that the police insist that the volunteer must leave the place, 40 Days for Life is blunt: “Obey, never confront the police,” and “remember, they’re only doing their job.”

All these guidelines have been given despite the fact that 40 Days for Life considers that the change to the Penal Code criminalizing the actions of pro-lifers “doesn’t affect us” because “this law does not apply to us.”

“40 Days for Life is limited to praying at a fixed spot in a peaceful and silent way. Don’t engage anyone; don’t go over to speak with women who want to abort or with health care workers. Therefore, it’s IMPOSSIBLE for there to be harassment,” they stressed.

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

Florida Catholic schools prepare for the arrival of Hurricane Ian with action and prayer

A vehicle drives through the winds and rain from Hurricane Ian on Sept. 28, 2022, in Sarasota, Florida. Ian is hitting the area as a likely Category 4 hurricane. / Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

St. Louis, Mo., Sep 28, 2022 / 12:15 pm (CNA).

Catholic schools of all levels are taking measures to keep their students safe amid the imminent arrival of Hurricane Ian, which strengthened into a Category 4 storm overnight and is expected to hit Florida’s Gulf Coast starting on Wednesday.

Ave Maria University, a Catholic college located about an hour northeast of Naples, Florida, has canceled classes through Sept. 30. Though the school is not in the direct path of the hurricane, heavy rainfall and wind are expected. 

As of midday on Sept. 28, Hurricane Ian had reached Category 4 strength with winds of 155 mph, barely shy of a Category 5 rating. Naples, Fort Myers, Cape Coral, and Port Charlotte are expected to be hit with major storm surges.

Matthew Dionisi, a freshman business major at Ave Maria, told CNA that most of his friends are remaining in their dorms, but they haven’t yet received a mandate from the school to do so. As of Wednesday, all classes at the university have been moved online, and the school says it will ask students to shelter in place if they receive a tornado warning.

In addition to switching to online learning, Ave Maria has canceled virtually all extracurricular activities. The school is running shuttles from the dorms to the dining hall to allow students to eat.

“For the rest of the day today, please do not ride your bikes, scooters, or skateboards around campus. If you would like to go to the Dining Hall, please take one of the three van shuttles from the residence halls to the Dining Hall that are running continuously today,” reads a Sept. 28 noon announcement from the school.

“It is likely that we will continue to experience heavy rainfall and wind throughout the day. Avoid nonessential travel. Updates will continue throughout the day.”

Dionisi said the mood is generally good among most fellow students he’s encountered, mainly because they know that the buildings on campus are designed to withstand a hurricane. The school, in its Sept. 28 message, noted that the campus was built to withstand a direct hit of a Category 4 hurricane — 130–155 mph sustained winds.

Dionisi said he also is confident that if an evacuation becomes necessary, the school will be able to provide that. He said despite being disappointed that he is no longer able to sing in the choir at an upcoming Mass — which had been scheduled for Wednesday evening — most of the people he has encountered are in good spirits and relaxed.

The Tampa Bay area, two and a half hours north of Naples, is expected to suffer hurricane-force winds and heavy rain likely to cause flash flooding and power outages, the Tampa Bay Times reported. Though the hurricane will likely hit just south of the bay area, mandatory evacuations have been ordered for coastal and low-lying areas, and Tampa officials warned residents on Tuesday to take the hurricane seriously, as first responders are not sent out if winds are higher than 40 mph.

Jesuit High School in Tampa, an all-boys school, has canceled all classes and extracurricular activities through Sept. 30.

Jimmy Mitchell, director of campus ministry, told CNA that the school itself is not at particular risk of storm surge and that it has storm-proof windows and other safety features. Still, he said, many of the school’s families have evacuated north, but others have decided to ride out the hurricane.

“I know the Jesuits are staying in their residence and offering Mass and many prayers for our greater school community each day,” Mitchell told CNA by text.

“Lots of students [are] connecting in small groups to pray rosaries over Zoom and things like that as well,” he said.

St. Leo University, a Benedictine college located 40 minutes northeast of Tampa, also issued a weather advisory on Tuesday canceling classes. While the university is closed for normal business operations, only essential personnel and students who are being sheltered may be on campus, the school says.

In the nearby Diocese of St. Petersburg, Bishop Gregory Parkes on Tuesday asked for prayers for “protection during the storm.”

“Loving God, maker of heaven and earth, protect us in your love and mercy. Send the spirit of Jesus to be with us to still our fears and to give us confidence in the stormy waters. Jesus reassured his disciples by his presence, calmed the storm, and strengthened their faith,” Parkes prayed in a message emailed to each parish in his diocese and posted on the diocese’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

“Guard us from harm during the storm and renew our faith to serve you faithfully. Give us the courage to face all difficulties and the wisdom to see the ways your Spirit binds us together in mutual assistance,” Parkes prayed. “With confidence, we make our prayer through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.”

Pope Francis to visit Kingdom of Bahrain in November

Pope Francis boards his flight to Geneva June 21, 2018. / Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Rome Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 04:57 am (CNA).

The Vatican confirmed Wednesday that Pope Francis will travel to the Kingdom of Bahrain, a Muslim island nation in the Persian Gulf, from Nov. 3–6.

The possibility of a papal trip to the Islamic monarchy was mentioned on the pope’s return flight from Kazakhstan on Sept. 15.

The director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, confirmed on Sept. 28 that Pope Francis will visit Awali and the capital city of Manama for the “Bahrain Forum for Dialogue: East and West for Human Coexistence.”

Further details and the full trip schedule will be published at a later date.

Bahrain, located to the east of Saudi Arabia and west of Qatar, has a population of 1.7 million people. The population is nearly 70% Muslim, with the majority belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam, the country’s state religion.

Christians, at approximately 210,000 people, make up 14% of the overall population, followed by Hindus at 10%. 

There are an estimated 80,000 Catholics in Bahrain, many of whom are migrants from Asia, particularly the Philippines and India. 

Awali, a small municipality about 12 miles south of Manama, is the location of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Arabia, which was consecrated on Dec. 10, 2021.

The ark-shaped Catholic cathedral seats 2,300 people and was built as part of a 95,000-square-foot complex. The church was the idea of Bishop Camillo Ballin, the vicar apostolic of Northern Arabia, who died in 2020, shortly before he could see his project completed.

The title of Our Lady of Arabia was approved in 1948. A small chapel in Ahmadi, Kuwait, was dedicated in her honor on Dec. 8 that year.

In 1957, Pius XII issued a decree proclaiming Our Lady of Arabia the main patron saint of the territory and of the Apostolic Vicariate of Kuwait.

In 2011, the Vatican officially proclaimed Our Lady of Arabia the patron saint of the vicariates of Kuwait and Arabia.

Later that year, the Holy See reorganized the Vicariate of Kuwait, giving it the new name of the Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, and including the territories of Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia.

Cardinal Zen’s second day in court: Magistrate rules there is sufficient evidence

Cardinal Joseph Zen. / Yung Chi Wai Derek/Shutterstock.

Rome Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 04:48 am (CNA).

On Tuesday, Cardinal Joseph Zen’s second day in court in Hong Kong, five witnesses were cross-examined and the magistrate ruled that there was sufficient evidence to justify a trial.

The 90-year-old cardinal appeared on Sept. 27 for the second consecutive day in the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. The prosecution called four police officers and one other witness to testify in the preliminary hearing. 

Principal Magistrate Ada Yim ruled that the prosecution has sufficient evidence to make a prima facie case against the cardinal and five others for failing to properly register a fund to provide legal aid to pro-democracy protesters, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

Zen’s next trial date is set for Oct. 26. He was arrested in May along with other democracy activists under Hong Kong’s strict national security law. Under the current less serious charge, he could face a fine of about $1,200 but no jail time.

In addition to Zen, who has been free on bail since early May, several others have been charged for failing to apply for local society registration for the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund between 2019 and 2021. 

Those accused with Zen are lawyer Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, activist Sze Ching-wee, and ex-legislator Cyd Ho.

All the defendants have pleaded not guilty. Cyd Ho is already jailed for a different charge. The fund helped pro-democracy protesters pay their legal fees until it dissolved itself in October 2021.

The legal representatives for the six defendants said that they will not testify in court or call any witnesses, but they will submit legal arguments on the interpretation of Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. 

The defendants’ lawyers have previously said they had the right to associate under Hong Kong’s Basic Law — the legal framework created when Great Britain handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Zen’s trial has received international attention this week, with several Catholic leaders and human rights activists expressing solidarity for the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong.

Paul Marshall, the director of the Religious Freedom Institute’s South and Southeast Asia Action Team, told CNA that Zen’s trial “further undercuts China’s 1997 promise of ‘one country, two systems’ when Hong Kong was returned to its rule and shows the government cannot be trusted to keep its agreements.”

“The prosecution and trial of 90-year-old Cardinal Zen for peacefully raising funds shows the extreme lengths to which the Chinese government will go to crush any vestiges of dissent and free religion in Hong Kong or the mainland,” he said.

Pope Francis: The first element of discernment is prayer

Pope Francis in St. Peter's Square, Sept. 28, 2022 / Pablo Esparza / CNA

Rome Newsroom, Sep 28, 2022 / 03:41 am (CNA).

Prayer is the first element of discernment, Pope Francis said in his general audience message on Wednesday.

“To discern we need to be in an environment, in a state of prayer,” he said Sept. 28 in St. Peter’s Square.

“We resume our catecheses on the theme of discernment,” the pope said, “because the theme of discernment is very important to know what is going on inside of us — feelings and ideas — we have to discern where they come from, where they lead me, to what decision.”

Francis emphasized that discernment does not lead to absolute certainty, because “life is not always logical” and humans are not machines, but “prayer is an indispensable aid.”

“It is not enough to be given instructions to carry out,” he said. “We would like to know precisely what should be done, yet even when it happens, we do not always act accordingly. How many times have we, too, had the experience described by the apostle Paul: ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want.’”

He pointed out that the first miracle Jesus performs in the Gospel of Mark is an exorcism. In the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus delivers a man from the devil, “freeing him from the false image of God that Satan has been suggesting since the beginning: that of a God who does not want our happiness.”

Pope Francis blessed a child at the general audience on St. Peter's Square, Sept. 28, 2022. Pablo Esparza / CNA
Pope Francis blessed a child at the general audience on St. Peter's Square, Sept. 28, 2022. Pablo Esparza / CNA

Pope Francis noted that this is a trap many people, even Christians, can fall into: they may believe that Jesus is the Son of God, “but they doubt that he wants our happiness.”

“Indeed, some fear that taking his proposal seriously means ruining our lives, mortifying our desires, our strongest aspirations. These thoughts sometimes creep up inside us: that God asks too much of us, or wants to take away what we hold most dear. In short, that he doesn’t really love us,” Francis said.

But, he explained, meeting the Lord in prayer should produce joy, not fear or sadness, which are signs of distance from him.

He encouraged people to pray to God with simplicity. Just like they would greet a friend, they can say “hello” to God throughout the day.

Prayer “is knowing how to go beyond thoughts, to enter into intimacy with the Lord, with an affectionate spontaneity,” he said, adding that “true prayer is familiarity and confidence with God. It is not reciting prayers like a parrot, blah blah blah, no.”

“To be in prayer,” he said, “is not to say words, words, no; to be in prayer is to open my heart to Jesus, to draw closer to Jesus, to let Jesus come into my heart and let us feel his presence.”

This, the pope continued, is how we can discern when it is Jesus speaking to us and when it is just our own thoughts. 

Francis said familiarity with the Lord also helps us to overcome the fear or doubt that God’s will is not for our good, “a temptation that sometimes runs through our thoughts and makes the heart restless and uncertain.”

“Discerning is not easy, for appearances are deceptive, but familiarity with God can melt doubts and fears in a gentle way, making our lives increasingly receptive to his ‘gentle light,’ according to the beautiful expression of St. John Henry Newman,” he said.

“It is a grace we must ask for each other: to see Jesus as our friend, our greatest friend, our faithful friend, who does not extort us, who, above all, never abandons us, even when we turn away from him,” he said. “He remains at the door of the heart.”

Pope Francis speaking at the general audience on St. Peter's Square, Sept. 28, 2022. Pablo Esparza / CNA
Pope Francis speaking at the general audience on St. Peter's Square, Sept. 28, 2022. Pablo Esparza / CNA

In his final greeting at the end of the audience, Pope Francis recalled that Thursday, Sept. 29, the Church celebrates the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.

These saints “arouse in each one of us a sincere adherence to the divine plans. Know how to recognize and follow the voice of the inner Master, who speaks in the secret of our consciousness,” he said.

Legislators raise concerns about FBI raid at pro-life family’s home

Mark and Ryan-Marie Houck with their seven children, ages 2 to 13. / Courtesy of the Houck family

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Sep 27, 2022 / 19:00 pm (CNA).

Twenty-two members of Congress are demanding an explanation from the Department of Justice after the arrest of a Catholic pro-life leader in front of his wife and children at the family’s home in Pennsylvania last week. 

Mark Houck, 48, was charged with two counts of violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or the FACE Act, and entered a not guilty plea at his arraignment in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

The FACE act “prohibits violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain or provide reproductive health services,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ). 

“The FBI’s treatment of pro-life leader Mark Houck is chilling,” Montana Republican Sen. Steve Daines said in a press release that accompanied the Sept. 27 letter. “Instead of allowing for a local resolution of the dispute, the FBI nationalized the matter by using excessive force with an early morning raid at gunpoint in front of young children. The American people deserve answers.” 

The letter requests, by Sept. 30, “an explanation for the excessive level of force used by the FBI in this case, and why the power of federal law enforcement was once again used against an American citizen in what should be a state and local matter.”

“Attorney General Merrick Garland oversees an increasingly politicized FBI that seems hell-bent on making examples of average American citizens who don’t align politically with the administration,” Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, said in the press release. 

“Given what we know about it thus far that is what the case of the raid on Mark Houck’s home appears to be,” Roy added. “And the FBI should immediately answer for its apparent use of a 25- to 30-person SWAT team with guns drawn to target Mark Houck, a pro-life father of seven, for allegedly shoving a guy in front of an abortion clinic (while he maintains he was defending his 12-year-old son).”

Houck’s arrest gained national attention after his wife publicly offered her account about details of the resources and tactics used by the FBI to arrest the pro-life leader and family man.

“A SWAT team of about 25 came to my house with about 15 vehicles and started pounding on our door,” Houck’s wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, told CNA the day of the arrest.

“They said they were going to break in if he didn’t open it. And then they had about five guns pointed at my husband, myself, and basically at my kids,” she added.

The FBI disputed Ryan-Marie Houck’s account of the arrest in a statement on Monday, calling the claims “inaccurate.”

“No SWAT Team or SWAT operators were involved. FBI agents knocked on Mr. Houck’s front door, identified themselves as FBI agents, and asked him to exit the residence. He did so and was taken into custody without incident pursuant to an indictment,” the statement said.

“Extensive planning takes place prior to the service of any federal warrant. The FBI then employs the personnel and tactics deemed necessary to effect a safe arrest or search,” the statement said.

“While it’s the FBI’s standard practice not to discuss such operational specifics, we can say that the number of personnel and vehicles widely reported as being on scene Friday is an overstatement, and the tactics used by FBI personnel were professional, in line with standard practices, and intended to ensure the safety of everyone present in and outside the residence,” the statement concluded.

An FBI spokesman declined to answer CNA’s questions about the number of law enforcement personnel at the scene and whether any drew their weapons and pointed them at the family.

The charges

Houck was indicted by a federal grand jury Sept. 22 after a Planned Parenthood clinic escort alleged that Houck pushed him twice, causing him to fall to the ground both times.

The federal indictment says that Houck twice assaulted the 72-year-old man, identified in the indictment by the initials B.L., who was at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2021.

According to the indictment, Houck shoved the man to the ground as he was attempting to escort two patients. The indictment also says that Houck “verbally confronted” and “forcefully shoved” him to the ground in front of Planned Parenthood the same day. The indictment says the man was injured and needed medical attention.

Houck regularly prays the rosary, hands out literature, and “does some sidewalk counseling” outside the clinic, his wife told CNA the day of the arrest.

Brian Middleton, who acted as Houck’s family spokesperson, told CNA Monday that Mark Houck maintains that he pushed the clinic escort in an effort to protect his then 12-year-old son from the man’s verbal harassment of the boy.

Middleton said that the man fell down but was not seriously hurt and required only “a Band-Aid on his finger.”

Houck faces the possibility of 11 years in prison if convicted under the new federal charges. 

The congressional letter addressed the dropped state charges.

“There is much to learn about the extent of the FBI’s operations in this case, especially since state-level assault charges were apparently dismissed by local authorities in Philadelphia,” the congressional letter says.

“Surely, the FBI must have an extraordinary reason for showing up at the home of an American family, allegedly with roughly 25 heavily armed federal agents, and arresting a father in front of his seven children. At the moment, it appears to be an extraordinary overreach for political ends.”