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Vatican pharmacy does booming business

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Serving an average of more than 2,000 clients a day, the Vatican pharmacy may be one of the world's busiest in-person dispensaries of pharmaceuticals, over-the-counter medicines, soaps, ointments and elixirs.

Run, since 1874, by the Hospitaller Brothers of St. John of God, the pharmacy continues to produce some of its own ointments and potions, Brother Thomas Binish Mulackal told the Vatican newspaper.

The Vatican's own products include a cream for preventing bedsores, anise and quinine elixirs, six different fragrances of soap, lavender water, an anti-acne lotion and a specially produced aftershave, said Brother Mulackal, the pharmacy director.

The laboratory where the products are made -- and where pharmacists mix some drugs to meet physicians' exact prescriptions for their patients -- is about to undergo an expansion, he said.

In an interview published Aug. 18 in L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Brother Mulackal said the number of clients served each day averages between 2,000 and 2,500. About half of them are Vatican residents, employees and their family members. The rest come from outside the Vatican for medicines that are not available in Italy or are difficult to find. Outsiders must have a prescription and valid ID to enter.

The pharmacy, which includes a large personal hygiene, beauty and cosmetics section, stocks some 42,000 products, the brother said. The products come from Italy, Switzerland, France, Germany and the United States.

The top-selling products from abroad, he said, are: Bengay, a pain-relieving heat rub; Contractubex, a scar treatment ointment; Hamolind, a hemorrhoid treatment; Pantogar, sold to prevent hair loss; Osteo Bi-Flex for joint health; and Aspir-Low, a low-dosage aspirin.

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Catholic leaders urge prayers, unity after attacks in Spain

IMAGE: CNS photo/Quique Garcia, EPA

By Jonathan Luxmoore

OXFORD, England (CNS) -- Spanish church leaders urged prayers and national unity after two terrorist attacks left at least 19 people dead.

Pope Francis, U.S. bishops and others weighed in with prayers and rejection of the Aug. 17 attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils, where cars drove into pedestrians. The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attacks. Thirteen were killed in Barcelona; one pedestrian and five suspects were killed in Cambrils.

"People are deeply shocked and saddened by this totally random event," said Msgr. Josep Ramon Perez, dean of Barcelona's Catholic cathedral. "While many are naturally asking what's happening to the world to make such things possible, many also recognize that the most important response is to pray for peace."

Thousands attended a midday vigil Aug. 18 in Barcelona's Plaza de Catalunya, attended by Spanish King Felipe VI and government and political party leaders from across the country. Spanish police asked mourners not to bring bags or backpacks to the vigil, which was accompanied by parallel commemorations in Madrid and other cities, as well as at the European Union's headquarters in Brussels.

Barcelona Cardinal Juan Jose Omella interrupted his retreat Aug. 17 to return to his city and be close to his people. The Archdiocese of Barcelona released photographs of him visiting victims of the attack at the hospital.

In a message to Cardinal Omella, Pope Francis denounced the "cruel terrorist attack" in Barcelona and said such "blind violence," which sows death and pain, is "a great offense to the Creator."

The papal message, sent by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, included prayers for the eternal repose of the dead, and for their families.

Pope Francis, it said, also prayed that God "would help us continue working with determination for peace and harmony in the world."

In an interview Aug. 18, Msgr. Perez said Barcelona's cathedral and neighboring churches had been closed after the attack as part of a security lockdown, forcing visitors and pilgrims to remain inside until late evening.

"The terrorists who carried out this action have nothing to do with ordinary people here," Msgr. Perez said, noting that "local Muslims are just as shocked and horrified as everyone else."

Candles, flowers and messages of solidarity were placed in memory of victims at various city locations.

Meanwhile, the Tarraconense bishops' conference, grouping Catholic bishops from Spain's Catalonia region, said members were "completely dismayed" by the "barbarity of the attack and the contempt it implies for human life and its dignity," adding that Barcelona and its inhabitants had always been "committed to the cause of peace and justice."

In an Aug. 18 interview with the Spanish church's COPE news agency, Cardinal Ricardo Blasquez, president of the Madrid-based bishops' conference, said Spaniards would be "especially beaten" after the Barcelona outrage, which had "inflicted a wound on everyone." He urged citizens to remember that Muslims were "the main victims" of Islamic State and not to "criminalize" them for the attack or "identify terrorism with Islam."

"Far from being terrorist violence, the true road to building a future of peace, now and forever, lies in respect for all people," Cardinal Blasquez said.

Following the first attack, Bishop Oscar Cantu of Las Cruces, chairman of the USCCB Committee on International Justice and Peace, said the bishops' conference "unequivocally condemns this morally heinous act and places itself in solidarity with the people of the Archdiocese of Barcelona and Spain at this terrible time of loss and grief."

"Terrorist attacks on innocent civilians can never be justified," he said. "To directly attack innocent men, women and children is utterly reprehensible."

The attack is the latest of several in which trucks and vans had been driven at high speed through pedestrian zones in Europe.

In an Aug. 18 message, Archbishop Georges Pontier of Marseille, president of the bishops' conference in neighboring France, said the Barcelona atrocity was "an insult to the Creator," and would unite Catholics in their determination that "evil will not have the last word." In Nice, France, in July 2016, 86 people were killed and 458 injured in a similar attack with a 19-ton truck.

The Las Ramblas attack was Spain's worst since March 2004, when Islamist militants detonated 10 bombs on commuter trains in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,800.

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Pope offers prayers for victims of terrorist attack in Barcelona

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ana Jimenez, La Vanguardia via Reuters


VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis offered prayers for the victims of a terrorist attack in Barcelona, Spain, that left at least 12 people dead and injured dozens of others.

"With great concern the Holy Father has learned about what is happening in Barcelona. The pope prays for the victims of this attack and wants to express his closeness to the whole Spanish people, particularly the injured and the families of the victims," said an Aug. 17 statement from Greg Burke, director of the Vatican press office.

A speeding van struck pedestrians in Barcelona's Las Ramblas district. The Islamic State took credit for the attack, saying it was in response to calls for its followers to target countries participating in the coalition trying to drive the extremist group from Syria and Iraq, the Associated Press reported.

Spanish church leaders called for prayers.

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Being legally blind doesn't hinder Catholic priest in serving his flock


By Anthony Salamone

EASTON, Pa. (CNS) -- A visitor attending Mass at St. Jane Frances de Chantal Church might not notice anything unusual about the celebrant.

Father Bernard J. Ezaki walks the center aisle of the massive church in Easton. He climbs the steps leading to the altar like any other priest or liturgical minister. He recites prayers with the normal vigor and rhythm of a cleric. People might notice Father Ezaki doesn't use the Sacramentary to read the prayers, or that Father Ezaki holds a micro-cassette in his left hand, and that technology contains all the Mass prayers and readings.

He also distributes holy Communion to the faithful just like any other priest, though he has one rule: Be still. "I need a big landing field," he said. "I tell them, especially at funerals, 'I don't want to put my fingers in your mouth.'"

If you haven't caught on by now, here is what you need to know about Father Ezaki: He is legally blind; he has been that way since birth. "I'm grateful," the 60-year-old priest said during an interview in his office, where decorations include a statuette of Stuart, the short, one-eyed minion from the "Despicable Me" movies. "If I could see well, I'd be in trouble. I might not even be a priest today."

Next year, Father Ezaki will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his ordination as a priest in the Diocese of Allentown, which encompasses five counties in eastern Pennsylvania. Spokesman Matt Kerr, who has served the diocese since 2000, said Father Ezaki is the only blind priest in the diocese as far as he knows.

"It's possible there were others, men who became blind as they aged," Kerr said. "But I can't say one way or the other."

A 1991 article in the Allentown Morning Call newspaper cites another spokesman saying Father Ezaki was the first blind priest to be ordained in the diocese. According to an article by Independent Catholic News, an online news outlet in the United Kingdom, church law before 1983 forbade the ordination of blind candidates and those with other physical impairments.

Father Ezaki's blindness resulted from being given too much oxygen following his premature birth. That led to "retinopathy of prematurity," a blinding eye disorder that can affect premature infants and lead to lifelong vision impairment and blindness.

The lack of vision has never slowed him down. The idea of a religious vocation first entered Father Ezaki's mind as a child. He told his parents, the late Dr. Toshio and Mary Ezaki, he wanted to become a priest because he thought they worked only on Sundays. In high school and college, he says, he began seriously considering the priesthood.

Father Ezaki attended Allentown public schools and earned bachelor's and master's degrees, including a master's in theological studies from Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He studied for the priesthood at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary near Philadelphia. As a student, Father Ezaki used recorded textbooks, He took careful notes and always found people willing to read to him.

Father Ezaki said he learned how to record the prayers and readings from another priest who became blind after being ordained. He said he records the liturgy with a magnifying glass and tape recorder.

"You know when you read a lot, your eyes are always a little ahead of your mouth?" he asked. "My ear is always ahead of my mouth."

A wire from the tape cassette runs under his chasuble, with an earpiece in his left ear enabling him to listen to the words. "If I want to stop it to tell a joke, I just stop it," he said.

Father Ezaki began his first year as an assistant pastor. He then taught theology to sophomores at Bethlehem Catholic High School in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, until 2013, when then-Allentown Bishop John O. Barres, now bishop of the Diocese of Rockville Centre in New York, asked him how long had been teaching.

"I said 24 years," Father Ezaki recalled. "He said, '24 years!' That's the most emotion I've ever seen out of that guy. I knew right then I was out of there."

He came to St. Jane's in October after serving as an assistant pastor at the Cathedral of St. Catharine of Siena in Allentown. Despite his blindness and other setbacks, Father Ezaki never shows bitterness, according to those who know him.

He is known, however, for sprinkling humor into his homilies, writings or every day conversations, with much of it self-deprecating. He sometimes editorializes, too.

At the end of Mass July 2, Father Ezaki mentioned the pride swelling from St. Jane's parishioners with the news that a native of their parish, Bishop-designate Alfred A. Schlert, was named June 27 by Pope Francis to become the diocese's fifth bishop, succeeding Bishop Barres.

"We priests are very enthusiastic," Father Ezaki said. "The good thing is that he knows us, and we know him and The bad thing is we know him and he knows us." That elicited first laughter, then applause, from the congregation. Father Ezaki proclaimed, "Let's belt this one out," as the organist played "America the Beautiful," the recessional hymn for the Sunday before the Independence Day holiday.

Father Ezaki also works on a blog called Apology Analogy, His writings use visual imageries -- analogies -- in defense of the Catholic faith. He is not afraid to express his Catholicism either in his writings or his preaching.

"They say one of the most common human fears is talking in front of people," he said. "Not me. The bigger the crowds, the better. But I have my phobias about other things."

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U.S. Catholic parishes, schools happy to be in path of solar eclipse

IMAGE: CNS photo/Mario Anzuoni, Reuters

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- U.S. Catholic parishes and schools located in the 70-mile-wide path of the total solar eclipse Aug. 21 plan to take part in this rare event with everything from providing parking spaces or viewing sites to offering overnight retreats or all-day events with family activities or scientific lectures.

The total eclipse -- to be viewed only with proper eyewear -- begins Aug. 21 in Oregon at 10:18 a.m. PDT and ends in South Carolina at 2:43 p.m. EDT after going over Idaho, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina.

How long viewers will see the moon covering the sun depends on where they will be on its coast-to-coast path. Some may only see it for a few seconds, others for a couple of minutes. Maximum eclipse -- at two minutes and 40 seconds -- takes place in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

But no matter the length of time extent, this historic event is drawing thousands to places where they can get a better view if just for a few minutes and to also celebrate for the day or even a long weekend.

And while they are in the path of the eclipse, some hope they will stay awhile and visit.

Renee Brueckner, operations director of the National Shrine of the Miraculous Medal in Perryville, Missouri, one of the sites in the path, hopes some of the eclipse-viewing crowd makes its way to the shrine where they will have extra tour guides on hand the weekend of Aug. 19-20. The shrine, which is just finishing a major capital restoration project, is ready for visitors but its offices will be closed from 12-2 p.m. local time Aug. 21 for sky gazing.

In Perryville, the total eclipse time is slated to be 2 minutes and 34 seconds, beginning at 1:18 p.m. CDT.

Crowds already will be across the street during the weekend for solar eclipse festivities including food and games at a picnic area owned by St. Vincent de Paul Parish.

Brueckner said she hopes visitors will come to the shrine and "get some contemplative and quiet time."

It's not the only place to highlight spiritual renewal. La Salle Retreat Center in Wildwood, Missouri, is hosting an overnight retreat the night before the eclipse and is inviting the public to its grounds on the day of the event, which there will begin at 1:15 p.m. CDT and last 2 minutes and 14 seconds. The center will sell bottled water and viewing glasses.

"Guests will be able to walk around our beautiful grounds with meditation areas, including a labyrinth and grottoes," the center's marketing and program coordinator, Michelle Cook, told the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis Archdiocese.

Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House in Waverly, Nebraska, is offering rooms and transportation for eclipse viewers. The retreat center, operated by the Lincoln Diocese, is not directly in the path of the total eclipse, but will take guests to and from the airport and to a town an hour away for solar viewing at 1:03 CDT. The retreat center also is providing box lunches for viewers and will have Mass and eucharistic adoration in the morning.

COR Expeditions, a Catholic outdoor program in Lander, Wyoming, that got its start at Wyoming Catholic College, also is offering an eclipse package that involves eight days of backpacking in the Wyoming's Wind River Mountain Range Aug. 19-26. The group is providing food, technical gear, instructors and transportation and says on its website that the trek after viewing the eclipse will give hikers the chance to "allow the awesome beauty of the eclipse to sink in."

For those who might want to take in a lecture or just activities, that's covered too.

Robert Mitchell, professor of engineering and physical science at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa, will conduct a live broadcast from Aurora, Nebraska, where the total eclipse can be viewed. The broadcast will be shown at the Putnam Museum in Davenport and will be livestreamed on YouTube beginning at 11 a.m. CDT with talks and PowerPoint presentations and then a presentation on the eclipse as it happens.

Mitchell said the sky will start to darken around 11:45 a.m. local time but the maximum part of the eclipse will be visible around 1:15 p.m. when it will be dark like night in Aurora, which he noted will confuse birds and other animals.

In an interview with The Catholic Messenger, newspaper of the Davenport Diocese, the professor echoed the often-said warning of not looking directly at the sun during the eclipse.

"Wear proper viewing glasses, get a filter for a telescope, make a pinhole viewer, make a mirror in an envelope or make your own cardboard projector," he said.

Another Catholic college professor equally excited about the eclipse is Ryan Maderak, assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, which is directly in the path of the total eclipse.

"This is literally the event of the century, and it is falling right in our laps," he said. The college will experience about 2 minutes and 18 seconds of total darkness starting at 1:07 p.m. CDT.

The college has a sold-out event the day of the eclipse with seating in its football stadium for viewing and free solar glasses to the first 7,500 at the gate. The day before the eclipse two astronomers from the Vatican Observatory will give presentations.

The big day will include morning and evening Masses, meals at the school's dining hall, activities at the stadium such as face painting, Frisbee games and water balloon tosses and will end with a "celestial concert." During the day, the school, which just opened a new observatory, will have its telescopes rigged for viewing the sun.

The eclipse will also be a big moment for Catholic schools that are in session.

"It really is like heaven" for a science teacher, said Meg Darke, a parent volunteer in the science lab at Christ the King School in Nashville, which is in the total eclipse path. "We're going to see something that day that man can't re-create. We cannot duplicate with all our technology what we're going to witness. "

Julie Petcu, science enrichment coordinator at St. Matthew School in Franklin, Tennessee, hosted a workshop this summer for area teachers, led by an educator from NASA.

St. Matthew's is just outside the total eclipse band but Christ the King School is right in it and on Aug. 21 the school will host a "solar-bration" event for the school community and parents.

"The entire community will be involved in doing activities that are eclipse related," Darke said. All the students and faculty will gather on the field beside the school to watch the eclipse and their parents will be invited to join.

Immaculate Conception School in Clarksville, Tennessee, also lies in a prime viewing location, just south of the center line of the path of the total eclipse, which will pass through Hopkinsville, which is on the other side of the Tennessee-Kentucky state line.

The total eclipse is expected to be visible in Clarksville for 2 minutes and 21 seconds. Immaculate Conception Principal Stephanie Stafford said that from the first day of school to the eclipse, they would be talking about this event.

And even through many local schools will be closed that day, Immaculate Conception will stay open, she told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper.

"We're leaving it up to the parents," she said, "to see if they are willing to fight the traffic."     

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Contributing to this report was Andy Telli in Nashville, Anne Marie Amacher in Davenport and Jennifer Brinker in St. Louis.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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Kosovo to dedicate cathedral named for Mother Teresa

IMAGE: CNS photo/Valdrin Xhemaj, EPA

By Jonathan Luxmoore

WARSAW, Poland (CNS) -- A cathedral named for St. Teresa of Kolkata is scheduled to be dedicated in Kosovo on the 20th anniversary of her death.

The cathedral will be dedicated Sept. 5 in Pristina. Albanian-born Cardinal Ernest Simoni will represent Pope Francis at the dedication. Celebrations of the neo-classical cathedral, on Pristina's Bill Clinton Boulevard, will begin Aug. 26, the saint's birthday.

"This will be a great event for our church and all people, whatever their faith and background," said Msgr. Shan Zefi, chancellor of Kosovo's Prizren-based Catholic apostolic administration.

"Mother Teresa was a unifying figure, who worked among Christians and Muslims and was admired by everyone. A cathedral in her honor is a great gift for this country."

He told Catholic News Service Aug. 16 that Catholics were grateful to Kosovo's government for backing the cathedral; its foundation stone was laid in 2005 by the late President Ibrahim Rugova, a Muslim.

"Bishops will come from throughout the region, as well as Muslim and Orthodox leaders, in a sign of majority approval," Msgr. Zefi said.

"St. Teresa's sisters have worked for many years here and enjoyed strong support, especially at a time of unemployment and hardship."

Mostly ethnic Albanian Muslims make up at least 90 percent of the 2.1 million inhabitants of Kosovo, whose 2008 independence from Serbia has been recognized by 111 of the United Nations' 193 member-states, but not by the Vatican.

The Catholic apostolic administration, founded in 2000 with 24 parishes, officially accounts for 3.5 percent of the population, although church leaders put numbers higher.

The cathedral was daubed in Islamist graffiti at its September 2010 opening. However, in his interview, Msgr. Zefi insisted opposition had come "only from a few individuals."

"Our church's ties with Kosovo's Islamic community are developing toward ever greater dialogue and tolerance," he said.

Once fully completed, the building will have two 230-foot bell towers, making it one of the city's largest, as well as a stained-glass window depicting St. Teresa with St. John Paul II, and will become the seat of a full Catholic diocese, relocated from Prizren.

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Congregation centennial: Supporting Eastern Catholics against all odds

IMAGE: CNS photo/Laura Ieraci

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, an office that supports the Eastern Catholic churches and strives to ensure that the universal Catholic Church treasures its diversity, including in liturgy, spirituality and even canon law.

Coincidentally established five months before the Russian Revolution, the congregation continually has had to face the real persecution and threatened existence of some of the Eastern churches it was founded to fortify.

Until 1989-90, many of the Byzantine Catholic churches -- including, notably, the Ukrainian Catholic Church, the largest of all the Eastern churches -- were either outlawed or severely repressed by the communist governments of Eastern Europe, said Archbishop Cyril Vasil, a member of the Slovak Catholic Church and secretary of the congregation.

No sooner had the Soviet bloc disintegrated and once-persecuted churches begun to flourish, then the first Gulf War broke out. And then there was the invasion of Iraq. And the turmoil of the Arab Spring across North Africa. Then the war in Syria. And Israeli-Palestinian tensions continue. The Chaldean, Syriac Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Melkite and Maronite churches have paid a high price.

"In all of this, the Eastern churches suffer the most because they find themselves crushed in the struggle between bigger powers, both local and global," Archbishop Vasil said in mid-August. Even those conflicts that are not taking direct aim at Christians in the Middle East make life extremely difficult for them, and so many decide to seek a more peaceful life for themselves and their families outside the region.

One impact of the "exodus," he said, is the greater globalization of the Catholic Church. While 100 years ago, when the Congregation for Eastern Churches was established, only a few Eastern churches had eparchies -- dioceses -- outside their traditional homelands, today they can be found in Australia, North and South America and scattered across Western Europe.

"In Sweden today, a third of the Christians are Chaldeans or Armenians," he added. "In Belgium and Holland, where Catholicism has suffered a decline, communities are reborn with the arrival of new Christians, which is a reminder of the importance of immigrants bringing their faith with them."

In countries like Italy, where thousands of Ukrainians and Romanians have come to work, they add ritual diversity to the expressions of Catholicism already found there, he said.

The growing movement of people around the globe means that part of the congregation's job is to work with the Latin-rite bishops and dioceses, "sensitizing church public opinion" to the existence, heritage, needs and gifts of the Eastern Catholics moving into their communities, the archbishop said. Where an Eastern Catholic hierarchy has not been established, the local Latin-rite bishop has a responsibility "to accept, welcome and give respectful support to the Eastern Catholics" as their communities grow and become more stable.

The idea, Archbishop Vasil said, is to help the local Latin-rite bishop seriously ask himself, "How can I help them free themselves of me and get their own bishop?"

Although it has only 26 employees -- counting the prefect, Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, and the receptionist -- the Congregation for Eastern Churches works with 23 Eastern Catholic churches and communities, fulfilling the same tasks that for Latin-rite Catholics fall to the congregations for bishops, clergy, religious, divine worship and education. It supports the Pontifical Oriental Institute, which offers advanced degrees in Eastern Christian liturgy, spirituality and canon law. And it also coordinates the work of a funding network known by the Italian acronym ROACO; the U.S.-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Pontifical Mission for Palestine are part of that network.

The congregation's approach in some areas is different than its Latin-rite counterparts because it follows the Eastern Catholic traditions and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches. For instance, some of the Eastern churches ordain married men to the priesthood.

And, like the Congregation for Bishops, the Congregation for Eastern Churches helps prepare the nomination of bishops by Pope Francis, but only for dioceses outside the Eastern churches' traditional homeland. The Eastern Catholic synods of bishops elect new bishops closer to home and submit their names to the pope for his assent.

But the congregation's primary concern is the survival of the Eastern Catholic churches, which is an issue not only in places where Eastern Catholics are threatened with death or driven from their homelands by war.

Archbishop Vasil said others risk losing their Eastern Catholic identity through assimilation.

Some of the blame, at least before the Second Vatican Council, lies with the Vatican and the Latin-rite hierarchy and religious orders, who, for decades encouraged Eastern Catholics to be more like their Latin-rite brothers and sisters.

Vatican II urged a recovery of the Eastern Catholic traditions, liturgy and spirituality. But, especially for Eastern Catholics living far from their churches' homelands, uprooting vestiges of the "Latinization" can prove difficult, Archbishop Vasil said.

Using his own Slovak Catholic Church as an example, he said parishes have been asked beginning Sept. 1 to return to the Eastern Catholic tradition of administering baptism, chrismation (confirmation) and the Eucharist together at the same liturgy, even for infants. In Slovakia, as in some parishes in North America, Eastern Catholics adopted the Latin-rite church's practicing of withholding the Eucharist until a child is about 7 and then celebrating the child's first Communion.

Especially for Eastern Christians whose ancestors immigrated two or three or four generations ago, the archbishop said, maintaining their specific identity as Chaldean, Ruthenian or Syro-Malankara Catholics is a challenge.

"The greatest danger in the coming years is extinction," Archbishop Vasil said. "We don't know what history has in store for us, but we must make sure we have done everything possible to avoid this danger."

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Follow Wooden on Twitter: @Cindy_Wooden.

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Pope prays for victims of 'devastating' mudslide in Sierra Leone

IMAGE: CNS photo/Ernest Henry, Reuters

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis offered his condolences and his prayers to the people of Sierra Leone after flooding and a major mudslide Aug. 14 led to the deaths of hundreds of people and displaced thousands.

"Deeply saddened by the devastating consequences of the mudslide on the outskirts of Freetown, His Holiness Pope Francis assures those who have lost loved ones of his closeness at this difficult time," said a message sent to Archbishop Edward Tamba Charles of Freetown by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

Pope Francis "prays for all who have died, and upon their grieving families and friends he invokes the divine blessings of strength and consolation," said the message, which was released by the Vatican Aug. 16. The pope also "expresses his prayerful solidarity with the rescue workers and all involved in providing the much-needed relief and support to the victims of this disaster."

In an Aug. 16 telephone interview from Freetown, Ishmeal Alfred Charles, who is managing Caritas' emergency response, told Catholic News Service, "There is so much agony and pain here."

"The burials start today," he said, noting that he was on his way to a mortuary to help people identify the bodies of their loved ones.

Caritas' emergency team of 10 medics and about 30 voluntary helpers "needs more resources," Charles said. "We have exhausted all that we have, and the needs are overwhelming."

The team got to the scene of the mudslide early Aug. 15 and "in the first 10 minutes we were there, 11 corpses," including six children, were brought into the tent they had set up to register victims, he said.

One of the survivors is a 16-year-old girl "who had been at a friend's house watching movies when she called her mother to ask if she could stay over because it was getting late," Charles said.

"Her mother agreed on the condition that she return home early the next morning. When she woke up and walked home, there was nothing there," he said. "She is her family's only survivor."

Visiting the hard-hit town of Regent, about 15 miles east of Freetown, President Ernest Bai Koroma described the devastation as "overwhelming" and pleaded for international assistance.

Soon after the disaster struck, Catholic Relief Services, the overseas aid agency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, published an appeal to donors.

"More than 300 people were killed and property was destroyed" in the mudslide, CRS said. At least 100 homes were covered and more than 600 people were still missing early Aug. 16.

"The death toll is expected to rise," the CRS appeal said. "Families affected by the Sierra Leone landslide need food, shelter, water and clothing," which CRS and its partner Caritas will strive to provide.

Idalia Amaya, CRS' deputy head of programs and the emergency response coordinator, said: "The devastation is like nothing we've seen before. Entire neighborhoods have been washed away ... People are in a complete state of shock."

CRS said in addition to providing food, water and mattresses to those immediately affected by the disaster, it would support the government and religious leaders with dignified burials of those who perished. The agency said its staffers were drawing from the experience of CRS' Ebola response in 2014.

"People here have already experienced so much trauma having lived through war and then Ebola, and now this," Amaya said. "But at the same time, people from Sierra Leone are incredibly resilient, and I know that with the proper support they will overcome this latest tragedy."

CAFOD, the official aid agency of the bishops of England and Wales, said heavy rainfall was expected to continue, and conditions may deteriorate.

In Freetown, Kayode Akintola, CAFOD's country representative for Sierra Leone, said: "Things are really bad on the ground. Just a few minutes' walk from our office a bridge has been submerged. There are dead bodies in the water and littering some of the streets, and houses are still under water."

CAFOD estimated 3,000 people had lost their homes.

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Contributing to this story was Bronwen Dachs in Cape Town, South Africa.

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Ohio community cafe responds to hunger while building a following

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dennis Sadowski

By Dennis Sadowski

PORT CLINTON, Ohio (CNS) -- Bow tie pasta with Chardonnay cheese sauce, fresh focaccia topped with herbs, a salad of fresh locally grown greens and made-from-scratch bread pudding aren't the usual fare for people in need of a free meal.

At Bistro 163 in this lakefront town 38 miles east of Toledo, such tasty delights are the norm though.

Part of the growing community cafe movement, the nonprofit restaurant with a modern, clean decor in the heart of Ohio's Lake Erie vacationland seeks to connect good food with good fellowship while beginning to address the needs of hungry, lonely and elderly people.

Mary Leucht, 52, of nearby Oak Harbor, has been coming for the meal since winter. The housekeeper at a local hotel said the free meal helps to make ends meet on her modest income.

"I come down for the food and the friendship," she said.

For buddies Robbie Floriana, 53, and Ken Ahrens, 56, both of Port Clinton and unemployed, the meal stretches their limited finances. They also like meeting new people because they never know who they might sit next to at the long community table set up in the in the center of the restaurant.

"We like the atmosphere," Ahrens said between forkfuls of creamy pasta.

They're not alone. Dozens of people have been coming for the meal for months. Visitors have included business executives, city council members and single moms with children.

"It's a lot more than food here we offer," said Stacy Maple, a member of St. Joseph Parish in nearby Marblehead, the restaurant's executive chef and general manager. She also is a graduate of the acclaimed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts.

Maple called landing at Bistro 163 a sign from God soon after she and her family -- a husband and two sons -- returned to Ohio after five years in Atlanta. She said she uses her culinary skills while responding to the Gospel call to respect human dignity.

"Everything we do here we want to be a reflection of the needs of our community," Maple said.

"Hunger, I'm learning quickly, is a symptom of so many bigger problems. Food might get them in here and food starts the conversation. But food is not the answer to the problem. You start to realize there are other things affecting peoples' lives," she explained to Catholic News Service.

Bistro 163 opened in June 2016 and is named for the state route that passes nearby. Jack Resetar, 79, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Port Clinton who helped establish the endeavor, likes to think its name refers to Proverbs 16:3: "Entrust your works to the Lord, and your plans will succeed."

It is one of about 50 such nonprofits that have emerged since what is believed to be the first opened in 2003 in Salt Lake City by Canton, Ohio, native Denise Cerreta. She is the founder of One World Everybody Eats, a network of community restaurants, and works with local groups exploring the concept.

While some community restaurants have come and gone, others have experienced success during years of operation. One philosophy governing them calls for patrons to pay what they think is a fair price for their meal.

Other restaurants, such as Bistro 163, list a suggested price on the menu and encourage patrons to pay a little more to help cover the cost of a meal for someone who cannot pay. Bistro 163 calls its idea "pay it forward."

"There is not one way or right way to do this," Cerreta told CNS. "It's important to free up the food and to eat in community. Building community is so important."

At Bistro 163, which is open Monday through Saturday for lunch, suggested prices for meals are $7 to $8. The menu changes quarterly, offering seasonal dishes to hold to the concept of locally sourcing food.

How local? The Rev. Bob Butcher, a retired Presbyterian minister, showed up during a recent lunch with a bag full of plump cucumbers from his garden. It was his congregation at Firelands Presbyterian Church that broached the idea of a community cafe with other Port Clinton faith leaders in 2015.

The concept has been well received thus far. Since opening in the location of a twice-failed coffee shop, Bistro 163 has served 20,000 meals, 30 percent of which have been for people who could not pay, Maple said. Those who are unable to pay are asked to volunteer for one hour in exchange, and most people have, she said.

In large part, the restaurants have a small number of paid staff and count on a team of regular volunteers to make the concept work. Bistro 163 draws from a team of about 70 volunteers, largely members of local churches, to staff its lunch service.

Maple also leads a staff of 10 people, including a sous chef, two cooks, three cashiers and four dishwashers. She has hired people who recently were released from prison or are recovering from an addiction as well as high school graduates looking to gain skills before enrolling in a culinary arts program.

Ryan Ross, 31, has worked as sous chef since February after being laid off from his job as a cook at the local Moose lodge. And, he said, he is recovering from an addiction. Ross enjoys making the different meals that emerge from Maple's creativity.

"I absolutely love it here," he said. "It has been great to be able to learn from Stacy. She's a great teacher. She's willing to teach you if you're willing to learn."

Keeping the focus on people in need is a key part of the mission of the restaurant, said Resetar, who serves as the greeter at the monthly meal. He would like to see broader outreach to the community though and he suggested that may be possible as the restaurant becomes more widely known.

"I sense a lot of needs are not being met in the community," he told CNS Aug. 14, before guests began arriving for the meal. "How do you build community, bringing the haves and the have-nots?"

Maple agrees. The restaurant was to resume a weekly After School Snack and Study program for kids as school reopened this fall. Maple is thinking about starting a Saturday morning gathering for teenagers to give them a place to talk and feel safe.

"There are a lot of social concerns here," she said. "I've learned a whole lot in a year's time, that's for sure."

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @Dennis Sadowski.

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Papal envoy calls Blessed Romero 'martyr of hope'

IMAGE: CNS photo/Rodrigo Sura, EPA


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CNS) -- Blessed Oscar Romero, the murdered archbishop of San Salvador, is a martyr of hope, said Chilean Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, Pope Francis' envoy to the celebration of the centennial of the archbishop's birth.

Blessed Romero "is a true martyr of hope ... a great martyr of hope," said the Santiago cardinal. "He is so for the continent's poor, he is so for the people of El Salvador, he is so for the hope of our beloved church, for all who struggle for justice, reconciliation, peace and affectionately call him 'St. Romero of America.'"

Cardinal Ezzati gave the homily Aug. 15 at the Salvadoran cathedral, where people gathered for a special Mass. He said Blessed Romero's "closeness to the poor ... led him to see, with his eyes, the injustice the peasants were suffering."

Repeatedly interrupted by applause, the cardinal quoted a letter from Pope Francis to the Salvadoran bishops on Blessed Romero's beatification in 2015: "Those who have Archbishop Romero as a friend in faith ... those who admire him, find in him the strength and encouragement to build the people of God, to commit to a more balanced and dignified social order."

"Those words by Pope Francis confirm our intuition that Blessed Romero is a saint of hope," the cardinal added.

Shortly before he was assassinated in 1980, Blessed Romero promised that if God accepted his martyrdom, he would forgive those who would take his life, the Santiago cardinal said in his homily Aug. 15 at the cathedral in San Salvador.

He also quoted Blessed Romero's words shortly before he was murdered: "Martyrdom is a grace from God which I do not believe I deserve. But should God accept the sacrifice of my life, that my blood be the seed of freedom, it is a signal that hope will soon be a reality. Should they kill me, I forgive and bless them."

Cardinal Ezzati arrived Aug. 12 in San Salvador to take part in different activities to mark the centennial of Blessed Romero's birth, which included a pilgrimage,"Caminando hacia la cuna del Profeta" ("Walking Toward the Prophet's Birthplace"), from San Salvador to Ciudad Barrios, the eastern city where the martyr was born Aug. 15, 1917.

Ordained April 4, 1942, in Rome, the Salvadoran religious leader was appointed archbishop of San Salvador Feb. 23, 1977, and was gunned down during Mass in a hospital chapel March 24, 1980, a day after a sermon in which he called on Salvadoran soldiers to obey what he described as God's order and stop carrying actions of repression.

The archbishop's March 30 funeral at the cathedral, attended by more than 200,000 mourners, was interrupted by gunfire that left 30-50 people dead. It is widely believed direct perpetrators of the unpunished crime were members of a paramilitary squad.

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