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New norms give Vatican greater say on alleged apparitions

A Marian apparition. / Credit: "The World of Marian Apparitions: Mary's Appearances and Messages from Fatima to Today"

Rome Newsroom, May 17, 2024 / 06:53 am (CNA).

The Vatican’s top doctrinal office is centralizing its authority over the investigation of alleged Marian apparitions and other religious phenomena under new norms it issued Friday, a break from past protocols that gave local bishops greater autonomy in discerning such cases.

While emphasizing that “discernment in this area remains the task of the diocesan bishop,” the new guidelines state that the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith “must always be consulted and give final approval to what the bishop decides before he announces a determination on an event of alleged supernatural origin.” 

The document spelling out the new procedures, titled “Norms for Proceeding in the Discernment of Alleged Supernatural Phenomena,” explains that the doctrinal office previously played a role in the evaluation process but generally did so behind the scenes.

“While previously the dicastery had intervened but the bishop was asked not to mention it, today, the dicastery openly manifests its involvement and accompanies the bishop in reaching a final determination,” the document states. “Now, when the bishop makes his decision public, it will be stated as ‘in agreement with the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.’”

The DDF’s prefect, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, who signed the document, held a press briefing for journalists at the Vatican Friday at noon local time.

The new norms take effect on Pentecost Sunday, May 19, abrogating the previous norms established under Pope Paul VI in 1978. 

One key component of the news norms is that only the pope can judge that an alleged apparition or other phenomenon is of "supernatural origin." It is beyond the scope of a local bishop or an episcopal conference to do so, the DDF says.

Centralizing control

In the document’s introduction, Fernández observes that under the older norms, “decisions took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades,” delaying “the necessary ecclesiastical discernment.” 

Fernández also highlights that in the past there was greater deference to the local bishop in ascertaining the validity of alleged supernatural events, stating that “some bishops insisted on being able to make a positive declaration of this type.”

“Even recently, some bishops have wanted to make statements such as, ‘I confirm the absolute truth of the facts’ and ‘the faithful must undoubtedly consider as true …’”

“These expressions,” Fernández states, “effectively oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself.”

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, presides over a press conference on Friday, May 17, 2024, on the Vatican’s new document on Marian apparitions. Credit: Rudolf Gehrig/EWTN News
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, presides over a press conference on Friday, May 17, 2024, on the Vatican’s new document on Marian apparitions. Credit: Rudolf Gehrig/EWTN News

Responding to the “development of modern means of communication” and “the increase in pilgrimages,” the document notes that these alleged events assume a global character “meaning that a decision made in one diocese has consequences also elsewhere.”

The document also emphasized that there have been cases of alleged supernatural events that have been “detrimental to the faithful,” adding that the Church “must respond with utmost pastoral solicitude.”

Some of the issues Fernández outlines included “the possibility of doctrinal errors,” “an oversimplification of the Gospel message,” and “the spread of a sectarian mentality.” 

Restrictions on pronouncements

The new guidelines note that during the discernment process “the diocesan bishop is to refrain from making any public statement in favor of the authenticity or supernatural nature of such phenomena and from having any personal connection with them.”

The document continues: “If forms of devotion emerge in connection with the alleged supernatural event, even without true and proper veneration, the diocesan bishop has the serious obligation of initiating a comprehensive canonical investigation as soon as possible to safeguard the faith and prevent abuses.”

In those cases, the bishop must establish an investigatory commission to include at least one theologian, one canonist, and “one expert chosen based on the nature of the phenomenon.” 

The document also stipulates that an interdiocesan commission must be created to evaluate cases that involve “the competence of multiple diocesan bishops.”

The new norms emphasize that should “alleged supernatural events continue” during the  investigatory process and “the situation suggests prudential measures,” then it is incumbent upon the bishop to “enforce those acts of good governance to avoid uncontrolled or dubious displays of devotion, or the beginning of a veneration based on elements that are as of yet undefined.”

Weighing positives and negatives

During the evaluation phase, the commission is to look at both the “positive” and “negative” criteria of the alleged apparition, the DDF’s new norms state. 

The document identifies four positive criteria: 

  1. “The credibility and good reputation of the persons who claim to be recipients of supernatural events or to be directly involved in them, as well as the reputation of the witnesses who have been heard.”

  2. “The doctrinal orthodoxy of the phenomenon and any messages related to it.”

  3. “The unpredictable nature of the phenomenon, by which it is evident that it is not the result of the initiative of the people involved.”

  4. “The fruits of the Christian life, including a spirit of prayer, conversions, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, acts of charity, as well as sound devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruits.” 

The new norms also set forth six negative criteria to be considered: 

  1. “The possibility of a manifest error about the event.”

  2. “Potential doctrinal errors.”

  3. “A sectarian spirit that breeds division in the Church.”

  4. “An overt pursuit of profit, power, fame, social recognition, or other personal interest closely linked to the event.”

  5. “Gravely immoral actions committed by the subject or the subject’s followers at or around the time of the event.”

  6. “Psychological alterations or psychopathic tendencies in the person that may have exerted an influence on the alleged supernatural event.” 

At the end of the evaluation process, the bishop and a delegate he appoints to oversee the commission’s work are to prepare a “personal votum” in which the bishop proposes to the dicastery a final judgment. That decision will normally follow one of six formulas:

  1. Nihil obstat: “Without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself, many signs of the action of the Holy Spirit are acknowledged ‘in the midst’ of a given spiritual experience, and no aspects that are particularly critical or risky have been detected, at least so far,” the document states.

  2. Prae oculis habeatur: “Although important positive signs are recognized, some aspects of confusion or potential risks are also perceived that require the diocesan bishop to engage in a careful discernment and dialogue with the recipients of a given spiritual experience.” 

  3. Curatur: “Although important positive signs are recognized, some aspects of confusion or potential risks are also perceived that require the diocesan bishop to engage in a careful discernment and dialogue with the recipients of a given spiritual experience.” 

  4. Sub mandato: “In this category, the critical issues are not connected to the phenomenon itself, which is rich in positive elements, but to a person, a family, or a group of people who are misusing it.”

  5. Prohibetur et obstruatur: “While there are legitimate requests and some positive elements, the critical issues and risks associated with this phenomenon appear to be very serious.”

  6. Declaratio de non supernaturalitate: “In this situation, the dicastery authorizes the diocesan bishop to declare that the phenomenon is found to be not supernatural,” the document states.

Next steps

Following the DDF’s final decision, the diocesan bishop, unless directed otherwise by the dicastery, “will inform the national episcopal conference of the determination approved by the dicastery” and “will clearly make known to the people of God the judgment on the events in question.” 

The document notes that a nihil obstat “allows the pastors of the Church to act confidently and promptly to stand among the people of God in welcoming the Holy Spirit’s gifts that may emerge ‘in the midst of’ these events.” 

The document explains that the phrase “in the midst of” denotes that “even if the event itself is not declared to be of supernatural origin, there is still a recognition of the signs of the Holy Spirit’s supernatural action in the midst of what is occurring.” 

But the norms stress that in cases where a nihil obstat is granted, “such phenomena do not become objects of faith, which means the faithful are not obliged to give an assent of faith to them.” 

As in the case of charisms recognized by the Church, the document states, “they are ‘ways to deepen one’s knowledge of Christ and to give oneself more generously to him, while rooting oneself more and more deeply in communion with the entire Christian people.’” 

In the press conference on Friday, meanwhile, Fernández said the new norms will allow bishops to “have a prudential character so that the faithful can accept this in a prudent way.”

In the new guidance, Fernández said, the Church “leaves the faithful free to devote their attention to this phenomena or not.”

“Revelation that has already happened is the word of God. It contains everything we need for our Christian life,” he said.

Vatican publishes new norms to discern alleged supernatural phenomena

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican has published new norms for the church to discern alleged supernatural phenomena, such as Marian apparitions and mystical visions, which streamline the discernment process for bishops, allow the Vatican to avoid making definitive judgments on the authenticity of the events and reaffirm that Catholics are not obliged to believe in the purported phenomena.

In the document released May 17, Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, laid out six possible conclusions that can be reached when discerning a possible supernatural phenomenon, ranging from a declaration that an event is not of supernatural origin to authorizing and promoting piety and devotion associated with a phenomenon without affirming its divine nature.

The significant development in the text, signed by Pope Francis, is that "as a rule, neither the Diocesan Bishop, nor the Episcopal Conferences, nor the Dicastery will declare that these phenomena are of supernatural origin," though "the Holy Father can authorize a special procedure in this regard."

Rather, declarations of supernatural authenticity "are replaced either by a 'nihil obstat'" -- a judgment meaning "no objection" that finds no problematic elements with a reported phenomenon -- "or by another determination that is suited to the specific situation," Cardinal Fernández wrote in his presentation of the new norms.

If a "nihil obstat" is issued in response to alleged supernatural phenomena, "the Diocesan Bishop is encouraged to appreciate the pastoral value of this spiritual proposal, and even to promote its spread, including possibly through pilgrimages to a sacred site," but "without expressing any certainty about the supernatural authenticity of the phenomenon itself," the guidelines said.

Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández speaks at a news conference.
Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, speaks at a news conference to present the dicastery's declaration, "Dignitas Infinita" ("Infinite Dignity") on human dignity at the Vatican press office April 8, 2024. (CNS photo/Pablo Esparza)

Other conclusions may require bishops: to further discern events that have positive aspects but also some signs of confusion; to intervene directly against people who are misusing a phenomenon for personal gain; to publicly forbid adherence to a phenomenon deemed to have serious risks; or declare that a phenomenon is decidedly not supernatural based on concrete evidence or proof that it was false.

Another conclusion specifically addresses phenomena with "various or significant" negative or "critical elements" but have "already spread widely" and have led to verifiable spiritual fruits. "In this situation, a ban that could upset the People of God is not recommended," the guidelines said. "Nevertheless, the Diocesan Bishop is asked not to encourage this phenomenon but to seek out alternative expressions of devotion and possibly reorient its spiritual and pastoral aspects."

Cardinal Fernández wrote that the possibility of concluding the discernment process with a "nihil obstat," as opposed to declaring the phenomenon is true and worthy of belief, is meant to "prevent any further delays in the resolution of a specific case involving an event of alleged supernatural origin."

He also cited historical instances of bishops issuing definitive statements that appear to oblige the faithful in their dioceses to believe the authenticity of certain supernatural phenomena.

"These expressions conflicted with the Church's own conviction that the faithful did not have to accept the authenticity of these events," the cardinal wrote, and they "effectively oriented the faithful to think they had to believe in these phenomena, which sometimes were valued more than the Gospel itself."

Citing Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Fernández wrote that a "nihil obstat" allows the faithful to believe certain phenomena "in a prudent manner" but that their devotion "is not obligatory."

The cardinal said such a response "naturally leaves open the possibility that, in monitoring how the devotion develops, a different response may be required in the future."

The document explained that the procedures for discerning alleged supernatural phenomena previously followed were approved by St. Paul VI in 1978, more than four decades ago, and remained confidential until they were officially published in 2011.

Yet since those norms were put into practice, "it became evident that decisions took an excessively long time, sometimes spanning several decades," it said, noting that "since 1950, no more than six cases have been officially resolved, even though such phenomena have increased without clear guidance and with the involvement of people from many Dioceses."

A religious sister holds an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
A religious sister holds an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as Pope Francis leads his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Oct. 24, 2018. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

"This way of proceeding, which has caused considerable confusion, shows how the 1978 Norms are no longer adequate to guide the actions of the Bishops and the Dicastery," the cardinal wrote.

In its introduction, the document also noted that with "the advent of modern means of communication, these phenomena can attract the attention of many believers or cause confusion among them."

A revision process of the 1978 norms began in 2019, and the current document began being prepared in 2023, it said.

The document laid out procedures for bishops to follow in investigating supernatural phenomena in their territory and explained their responsibility to formulate a final judgment on them, from among the six conclusions provided, to be sent to the dicastery for approval. In fact, the new norms assure bishops that the dicastery will be more explicitly involved in working with them if they need to conduct an investigation. The bishop's decision must be sent first to the dicastery before it is made public and the dicastery will have the power to intervene at any time.

The procedures said that a bishop must "refrain from making any public statements in favor of the authenticity or supernatural nature of such phenomena, and from having any personal connection with them."

If forms of devotion arise in connection with an alleged supernatural event, "the Diocesan Bishop has the serious obligation of initiating a comprehensive canonical investigation as soon as possible to safeguard the Faith and prevent abuses," the document said.

The bishop should also "prevent the spread of confused religious manifestations or the dissemination of any materials pertaining to the alleged supernatural phenomenon -- such as the weeping of sacred images; the sweating, bleeding, or mutation of consecrated hosts, etc. -- to avoid fueling a sensationalistic climate," it said.

The sun rises behind the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima in Fátima, Portugal.
The sun rises behind the Shrine of Our Lady of Fátima in Fátima, Portugal, before Pope Francis arrives Aug. 5, 2023. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

Outlining the norms for the investigative phase, the document said the positive criteria to consider in response to a supernatural phenomenon entail the credibility of persons involved with the events, the doctrinal orthodoxy of the phenomenon and messages associated with it, the spontaneity of the event and the fruits that it bears in the life of the Christian community.

Negative criteria, on the other hand, involve potential doctrinal errors associated with the event, the rise of a sectarian spirit revolving around it, an overt pursuit of personal gain or gravely immoral actions committed by those involved in the phenomenon and psychological or psychopathic tendencies among those who may have been influenced by the phenomenon.

If a bishop is granted a "nihil obstat" by the dicastery regarding an alleged supernatural phenomenon, the document said a bishop will indicate that the faithful "are authorized to give to it their adherence in a prudent manner," while ensuring they "do not consider any of the determinations as an approval of the supernatural nature of the phenomenon itself."

If a precautionary or negative determination is made, the bishop "must formally make it known," using clear and understandable language and considering whether to make known the doctrinal reasons for the decision, the norms said.

Pope Francis: Young people ‘can break the chains of antagonism’ between Catholics, Orthodox

Pope Francis converses with Metropolitan Agathangelos, director general of the Apostolikí Diakonía of the Greek Orthodox Church, at the Vatican on May 16, 2024. / Credit: Vatican Media

ACI Prensa Staff, May 16, 2024 / 16:18 pm (CNA).

Pope Francis has placed in young people his hope that Catholics and Orthodox may be “united in diversity” and “break the chains” of antagonism, misunderstanding, and prejudice that have kept them prisoners for centuries.

In a Thursday audience, the Holy Father received the director-general of the Apostolikí Diakonía of the Orthodox Church of Greece, Metropolitan Agathangelos, and a delegation from the Theological College of Athens.

The Apostolikí Diakonía is the official publishing house and missionary arm of the Orthodox Christian Church of Greece. Since 1936 it has published hundreds of books on Christian theology and tradition, Orthodox spirituality, and biblical studies.

At the beginning of his talk given at the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, the Holy Father expressed his gratitude for the collaboration between Apostolikí Diakonía and the Dicastery for the Promotion of Christian Unity.

He also addressed a particular greeting to the archbishop of Athens and all Greece, His Beatitude Ieronymos II, who was present at the audience and whom the pontiff described as “a man of deep faith and a wise pastor.”

Pope Francis highlighted that during these last 20 years, “despite times of difficulty, for example, the economic crisis in Greece and the pandemic, the Apostolikí Diakonía and the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration have worked together in promoting projects of common interest on the cultural and educational level.”

He also stressed the need to provide cultural, theological, and ecumenical formation for new generations.

According to the Holy Father, “it is the young, sustained by the hope founded on faith, who can break the chains of antagonism, misunderstanding, and prejudice that for centuries held Catholics and Orthodox back from acknowledging one another as brothers and sisters, united in diversity and capable of bearing witness to the love of Christ, especially in a world so divided and riven by conflict.”

Pope Francis noted that next summer a group of Catholic students will be welcomed at the Theological College of Athens, where they will be “introduced to knowledge of the modern Greek language and the Orthodox Church.”

“By journeying together, working together, and praying together, we prepare ourselves to receive from God the gift of unity that, as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, will be a communion and harmony in legitimate diversity,” the Holy Father concluded.

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

Italian actor Roberto Benigni to join Pope Francis for World Children’s Day

Pope Francis meets with Italian actor Roberto Benigni on Dec. 7, 2022. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, May 16, 2024 / 11:49 am (CNA).

Pope Francis will be joined by Italian actor Roberto Benigni and soccer star Gianluigi Buffon as the pontiff celebrates World Children’s Day over the last weekend in May.

The Vatican announced on Thursday that World Children’s Day will “kick off” on Saturday, May 25, at 3:30 p.m. with a soccer match between kids and professional soccer players in Rome’s Olympic Stadium led by Buffon, the goalie who helped Italy achieve victory in the 2006 World Cup.

On the second day of the event, Benigni, best known for his Oscar-winning film “Life Is Beautiful,” will give a short speech at the end of Pope Francis’ Mass and Angelus address in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, May 26. 

World Children’s Day is a new initiative by Pope Francis sponsored by the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education in collaboration with the Catholic community of Sant’Egidio, the Auxilium Cooperative, and the Italian Football Federation. 

The Vatican is expecting children from more than 100 countries to travel to Rome for the weekend event with the pope.

When Pope Francis first announced the establishment of World Children’s Day in December 2023, he said: “Like Jesus, we want to put children at the center and care for them.”

According to Vatican News, Pope Francis was inspired to create World Children’s Day by a 9-year-old boy named Alessandro who proposed the idea to the pope to have an international event like World Youth Day (an international gathering for young people ages 16 to 35) for younger children.

The two-day event will culminate with Mass for the solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity with the pope in St. Peter’s Square at 10:30 a.m. on May 26.

Franciscan Father Enzo Fortunato is organizing World Children’s Day for the Vatican. He said the goal is to “look at the world through the eyes of children, who are the hope of the people, their future.”

“I publicly thank Roberto Benigni and all those who have decided to work and donate their time and talent to children all over the world,” he added.

Chiara Corbella’s beatification cause to take a step forward in June

Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo. / Credit: Christian Gennari/chiaracorbellapetrillo.it

Rome Newsroom, May 16, 2024 / 10:08 am (CNA).

Servant of God Chiara Corbella Petrillo, the joyful young mother who died of cancer in 2012, will be one step closer next month to being declared a saint.

The Diocese of Rome announced Wednesday that it will hold the closing session of the diocesan phase of her cause for beatification on Friday, June 21, at noon in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.

Since her death at the age of 28, Corbella has inspired many by her witness to faith and joy amid suffering and loss.

Corbella met her husband, Enrico Petrillo, at the age of 18 while on a pilgrimage to Međugorje. They married six years later in Assisi on Sept. 21, 2008. 

Within the first two years of their marriage, Chiara and Enrico suffered the death of two children, both of whom died less than an hour after birth.

Their first child, Maria Grazia Letizia, was diagnosed in utero with anencephaly, a serious birth defect in which a baby is born without parts of the brain or skull. Chiara chose to carry the baby to term and her daughter lived just long enough to be baptized in the hospital, dying within a half hour of her birth in June 2009.

During her second pregnancy, ultrasounds revealed that her son had no legs or kidneys. Baby Davide Giovanni died in June 2010 after living for 38 minutes. 

The couple chose to share their testimony about the few minutes that they were able to spend with their children at pro-life events in Italy. They also underwent genetic testing that revealed no pathological risk to their future children.

“The Lord gave us two special children: Maria Grazia Letizia and Davide Giovanni, but he asked us to accompany them only until their birth. He gave us the opportunity to embrace them, have them baptized, and then entrust them into the hands of the Father, all with a peace and joy that we had never experienced before,” Chiara recounted.

Corbella became pregnant for a third time with their son Francesco in 2010 and ultrasounds showed that he was in perfect health. The joyful news was short-lived as Chiara was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors removed a tumor on her tongue that turned out to be cancerous.

Chiara rejected any form of treatment that posed a risk to her unborn son, prioritizing his life over her own. Her healthy baby boy was born on May 30, 2011.

As the cancer metastasized, it became difficult for Chiara to speak and see clearly. A photo of her wearing an eye patch with a big smile was taken in April 2012, less than two weeks after she learned that her condition was terminal. She prepared for death by receiving the Blessed Sacrament daily. 

In a letter that Chiara wrote to their son Francesco, she recalled the line from the Gospel: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Her husband, Enrico, has recounted how he asked Chiara about this not long before she died. He shared her response in a speech in St. Peter’s Square in 2016. 

“I asked her: ‘Chiara, is this cross really sweet like the Lord says?’ She smiled at me, and with a frail voice replied: ‘Yes, Enrico. It is very sweet.’”

Chiara died on June 13, 2012, at home in her wedding gown, surrounded by her family and friends, one year after her son was born.

Corbella’s cause for canonization was announced on June 13, 2017, the fifth anniversary of her death.

Her parents were invited to tell her story at the 2023 World Youth Day in Lisbon, where they shared that Corbella’s son Francesco is 11 years old and inspired by his mother’s witness.

With the closing of the diocesan investigation into Corbella’s life, virtues, and sanctity, the documented testimonies and other materials for her cause for beatification will be sealed and sent to the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Causes of Saints for further scrutiny.

The next step in the process will be for the pope to recognize her as someone who lived a life of heroic virtue and declare her venerable. 

Corbella will need two miracles attributed to her intercession to be declared a saint. 

Pope praises California death penalty moratorium, governor says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis supports the steps taken by California to halt the use of the death penalty, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

Newsom told Catholic News Service that during their meeting May 16, the pope "immediately brought up the issue of the death penalty."

The governor said that during their exchange the pope expressed "how proud he was of the work we're doing in California."

Newsom was at the Vatican for a summit on climate resilience that brought seven other governors and 16 mayors from around the world to Rome. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Massachusetts Gov. Maura Healey and Boston Mayor Michelle Wu were the other U.S. elected officials who participated in the summit.

Newsom told CNS after his meeting with Pope Francis that he was "struck" by the pope's sudden comments to him on the death penalty.

"I wasn’t anticipating that, especially in the context of this convening," he said.

While capital punishment remains legal in California, Newsom signed an executive order in 2019 implementing a moratorium on executions. The state has not executed anyone since 2006.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a Vatican conference.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a summit, titled “From Climate Crisis to Climate Resilience,” in the synod hall at the Vatican May 16, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

California has the largest death row in the United States with 638 condemned inmates as of May 6, the last time the public data was updated. But in 2022 Newsom announced he was closing down the state's two death row facilities -- at San Quentin for men and Chowchilla for women -- and would move prisoners to different facilities. The moves are supposed to be completed by the end of the summer.

Making his announcement at a news conference in January 2022, Newsom said, "The prospect of your ending up on death row has more to do with your wealth and race than it does your guilt or innocence."

In his pontificate, Pope Francis has expanded church teaching on the capital punishment, condemning it in all instances.

The Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith said the death penalty "violates the inalienable dignity of every person, regardless of the circumstances" in a recent document written by Cardinal Víctor Manuel Fernández, dicastery prefect, and signed by Pope Francis.

The document, "Dignitas Infinita" ("Infinite Dignity") released at the Vatican April 8, also reaffirmed the dignity of incarcerated people "who often must live in undignified conditions."

While the Catechism of the Catholic Church previously taught that capital punishment could be justified in only "very rare, if not practically non-existent" circumstances, Pope Francis ordered an update to the catechism in 2018 to state that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

The catechism continues to state that the Catholic Church "works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

It’s been 100 years since the Catholic Church’s first Council in China

On March 30, 1926, Cardinal van Rossum, prefect of Propaganda Fide, announced Pope Pius XI’s decision to consecrate the first six Chinese bishops, a ceremony that was held in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 28 of that year. / Credit: Public Domain

Rome Newsroom, May 15, 2024 / 16:17 pm (CNA).

One hundred years ago, the First Council of the Catholic Church convened in China, gathering together more than 100 bishops, vicar generals, and religious. The majority of the participants were foreign-born, but for the first time, there were also native Chinese who would have a say on the trajectory of the Church in their homeland.

Led by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Celso Costantini, papal legate to China, the primary objective of the council, which opened on May 15, 1924, was to initiate the process of ecclesial inculturation, which was constructed upon the indigenization of the Chinese Church. Secondly, the council set out to decouple the missions from the colonial project.

These two objectives were important in directing the Church’s ecclesiology and diplomatic mission, an objective that was reflected in Costantini’s elevation of Odorico Cheng Hede as the head of the recently created Apostolic Prefecture of Puqi and Melchior Sun Dezhen to the Apostolic Prefecture of Lixian.

“Among you are two Chinese prelates, recently raised to the dignity of prefects apostolic, these venerable brethren, are the fruit of your past labors, the grain of mustard that will grow into a large tree and bring forth abundant fruit in the future,” said Costantini during the solemn high Mass at the opening the council. 

It is against the backdrop of this momentous event that on Tuesday, May 21, the Pontifical Urban University along with Agenzia Fides and the Pastoral Commission for China is holding a conference to discuss the implications of the council on the historical legacy of the Church as well as contemporary Sino-Vatican relations. 

Titled “100 Years Since the ‘Concilium Sinense’: Between History and the Present,” the conference will feature a video message by Pope Francis, presentations by the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, pro-prefect of the Dicastery for Evangelization. 

The conference will also feature voices from the People’s Republic of China, including Bishop Shen Bin of Shanghai, who made waves when he was unilaterally appointed as bishop of Shanghai in April 2023 without a papal mandate, thereby breaking the terms of the contested 2018 Sino-Vatican Accord. Pope Francis confirmed the appointment in July 2023. 

Maximum Illud, a new paradigm in Catholic missiology

On Nov. 30, 1919, Pope Benedict XV issued his apostolic letter Maximum Illud, a document that has been heralded as a turning point in the Church’s missiology.

At the heart of the letter was the call for the training of local clergy, which Benedict referred to as the “greatest hope of the new churches.” 

“For the local priest, one with his people by birth, by nature, by his sympathies and his aspirations is remarkably effective in appealing to their mentality and thus attracting them to the faith. Far better than anyone else, he knows the kind of argument they will listen to, and as a result, he often has easy access to places where a foreign priest would not be tolerated.”

The letter was not only responding to the postwar political climate but also to the historical legacy of the Catholic missions in China, which had been instrumentalized by the colonial powers (first the Portuguese and later the French) in shoring up their political power on the mainland.

The defeat of the Qing Dynasty by the British in the First Opium War ushered in what is called the  “Century of Humiliation,” a period that denotes a culture nadir and left China politically impotent on the domestic level. 

The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing was the first of the “unequal treaties” granting the British the status of “most favored nation” as well as extraterritorial economic and diplomatic privileges, setting the template by which other treaties were modeled and establishing the playbook for Western international relations with China. 

This was soon replicated by the French in October 1844 with the signing of the Treaty of Whampoa, which allowed for the uninterrupted practice of Catholicism in Chinese port cities (such as Shanghai) as well as granting extraterritorial privileges for foreign nationals, thereby exempting them from local laws and customs. 

H.M. Cole in the “Origins of the French Protectorate over Catholic Missions in China” observed, however, that it wasn’t until the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858 following the end of the Second Opium War that France became the de jure protector of Catholic missions in China.

Despite an expanding Catholic community, the Holy See did not have any direct diplomatic contact with China as any attempt to do so was thwarted by the French. 

Many missionaries, moreover, still felt an obligation to their country of origin, thus feeding into the idea that they were on a project of nation-building rather than of evangelization. But there were some foreign born-priests in China who were staunch advocates of fundamentally altering the Church’s approach. 

Father Frédéric Vincent Lebbe, a French priest who arrived in China after the Boxer Rebellion, was an early advocate for the indigenization of the Chinese Church, a call that was shared by Father Anthony Cotta, a fellow Vincentian. 

In a letter Cotta forwarded to Rome — originally written by Lebbe to Paul-Marie Reynaud, bishop of Ningbo — Lebbe admonished the missionaries for creating “spiritual colonies” instead of living Churches and for “the national [indigenous Chinese priests] priesthood, being always kept down to the assistant level, is as though foreign in its own country.” 

Pope Benedict XV died on Jan. 22, 1922, and his successor, Pius XI, shared his determination to reform missionary work and establish an indigenous hierarchy. One of his most consequential decisions for the Church in China was the appointment of Costantini as his personal apostolic delegate in China. 

In Costantini’s memoir “With the Missionaries in China (1922–1933),” he described the Holy See’s efforts as having a “simple religious, missionary character,” adding: “It must, therefore, have no political aspect or constraints.'' 

He also emphasized that the “Holy See does not do politics … it has no imperialist aim in China,” and that “the missions are at the service of the Church,” an ambition that would materialize following the council.

Toward the council 

The Primum Concilium Sinese (the first Plenary Council of China), or the Shanghai Synod of Bishops, was held from May 15 to June 12, 1924, bringing together 105 participants led by Costantini. 

Father Carlo Pioppi, professor of modern and contemporary Church history at the faculty of theology of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, noted in a 2012 paper that the groundwork for the council was already laid by 1923, when in May Costantini “had established a preparatory commission for the council, composed of 22 members, of which seven were Chinese.”

Pius XI in his 1924 apostolic letter authorized Costantini to convoke and preside over the upcoming council. A few months later Costantini appointed Odorico Cheng Hede as the head of the recently created Apostolic Prefecture of Puqi. He elevated another Chinese priest, Melchior Sun Dezhen, to the Apostolic Prefecture of Lixian. 

By preceding the council with the elevation of two Chinese clerics to head ecclesial territories, Costantini was signaling that the time had come to start erecting a local hierarchy. 

Throughout the monthlong synod, discussions were held on the process of inculturating the Church, in line with the guidelines set forth in Maximum Illud, and in establishing the eventual framework for a Chinese hierarchy, which came two years later when six Chinese bishops were consecrated by Pope Pius XI on Oct. 28, 1926.   

“Outside the council hall, you could hear almost all the languages ​​of the earth being spoken: once you crossed the threshold of the council hall, only the language of Rome was spoken,” Costantini recounted in his memoirs. 

“Once the council was over,” he continued, “we sent the Holy Father a telegram in which it was said: ‘With one heart, with one language, although many different languages ​​are spoken, we profess the faith of Rome and fidelity to the Chair of Peter.’” 

Pioppi observed in his paper that immediately following the closing of the synod, Costantini sent the text of the decrees to Rome to be subject to the recognition process, which lasted nearly four years, though it wasn’t until June 12, 1929, that the decrees were officially enacted. 

Some of the major changes to come out of the council included the new division of ecclesiastical territories into 17 new units corresponding with the administrative division of the Chinese state and the opening of parochial positions to Chinese clergy. 

In the second book of the conciliar decrees, the title De Admittendo Clero Indigena Ad Omnia Officia explicitly stated: “No office is barred to the native clergy, provided they are fit.” It continued to state that the council’s “desire” to see the day when “Chinese priests will also be elected as bishops.”

This council amounted to a “religious decolonization and greater inculturation” in China, Parolin wrote in Vatican News in 2021. Costantini returned to Rome in 1933, going on to serve as the secretary of Propaganda Fide, but he made an indelible mark, changing the perception and the structure of the Church in China.

On March 30, 1926, Cardinal Willem van Rossum, prefect of Propaganda Fide, announced Pius XI’s decision to consecrate the first Chinese six bishops, a ceremony that was held in St. Peter’s Basilica on Oct. 28 of that year. 

Twenty years later, on April 11, 1946, Pope Pius XII issued the apostolic constitution Quotidie Nos, officially establishing a Chinese hierarchy, a decision that carried a significant canonical and sociopolitical weight. 

Before 1946, the ecclesiastical administrative units in China were apostolic prefectures or pre-diocesan administrative units in mission territories. Having native-born Chinese bishops and an official diocesan structure elevated the position of the Chinese Church, signaling to the world that it was an equal, not a mission territory governed by foreigners. 

These events, while distant, fundamentally altered the Church’s approach to mission work as well as an understanding of its place in China, a point ever more important within the context of contemporary Sino-Vatican relations. 

Pope Francis at general audience: ‘Love is charity’

Pope Francis addresses the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 15, 2024, at the Vatican. / Credit: Vatican Media

Rome Newsroom, May 15, 2024 / 09:10 am (CNA).

During his general audience on Wednesday, Pope Francis reflected on charity — what he described as the “culmination” of the theological virtues — observing that it is the highest expression of Christian love, predicated on truth and underscored by forgiveness. 

“Love is charity. We immediately realize that it is a difficult, indeed impossible love to practice if one does not live in God. Our human nature makes us love spontaneously what is good and beautiful,” Pope Francis said to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square on a sunny morning in Rome.

Pointing to the Sermon on the Mount and repeating twice the Christian maxim “love your enemy,” the pope noted that this teaching represents the highest expression of Christian love, as it “embraces what is not lovable; it offers forgiveness.” 

Pope Francis greets pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 15, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 15, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

“It is a love so ardent that it seems almost impossible,” the pope continued, “and yet it is the only thing that will remain of us. Love is the ‘narrow gate’ through which we will pass in order to enter the kingdom of God.” 

Looking at the various manifestations of love, the pope noted that Christians “are capable of all the forms of love in the world” such as that expressed toward friends, civic love, and “the universal love for all humanity.” 

But Francis stressed that it is the theological virtue of charity that enables Christians to love “those who are not lovable” and “those who do not care for us and are not grateful.” 

“This comes from God, it is the work of the Holy Spirit in us,” he added. 

Pope Francis also centered his catechesis on St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, noting that the apostle was speaking to a community divided and “anything but perfect in fraternal love.” 

Francis observed that Paul is urging the Corinthians to embrace “not the love that rises but the one that descends.” 

Pope Francis greets pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 15, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his Wednesday general audience on May 15, 2024, at the Vatican. Credit: Vatican Media

“Paul,” the pope added, “is concerned that in Corinth — as among us today too — there is confusion and that there is actually no trace of the theological virtue of love.” 

The pope contrasted the theological notions of love and charity with contemporary notions such as the one “on the lips of many ‘influencers’” or heard “in the refrains of many songs.”

At the end of the general audience, the pope stressed the importance of the Holy Spirit in light of the solemnity of Pentecost, which will be celebrated on Sunday.

The pope implored the faithful to “be docile to the action of the Holy Spirit,” which he described as “a source of relief for everyone in their trials.” 

The pope also prayed for those affected by recent flash flooding in northern Afghanistan, which has left over 300 people dead and injured more than 1,600. 

“I pray for the victims, in particular for the children and their families, and I appeal to the international community to immediately provide the aid and support necessary to protect the most vulnerable,” the pope said. 

Christian love embraces the unlovable, enemies, the unborn, pope says

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- While it is easy for people to love what is good and beautiful or to be generous and heroic for an ideal, Pope Francis said Christian love embraces what is not lovable, it offers forgiveness and blesses one's enemies.

This "greater love," which comes from God, "drives us where humanly we would not go: It is the love for the poor, for those who are not lovable, for those who do not care for us and are not grateful," he said at his weekly general audience in St. Peter's Square May 15.

"It is love for what no one would love, even for one's enemy," he said in his main catechesis.

Pope Francis rings a bell
Pope Francis, with a young boy's help, rings a bell called "The Voice of the Unborn," before his general audience at the Vatican May 15, 2024. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

This "great selfless love" includes love for "the poor, the sick and the helpless, such as unborn children," he said in brief remarks to visitors from Poland, who had brought a bell, known as "The Voice of the Unborn," which will be taken to Kazakhstan. He also greeted representatives of the Yes to Life Foundation, which started the initiative.

The bell serves as a reminder of "the need to protect human life from conception to natural death," the pope said.

In his main audience talk, the pope continued his series about vices and virtues by reflecting on the "theological" or New Testament virtue of charity or love. Of the three -- faith, hope and love -- "the greatest of these is love," according to St. Paul the Apostle.

Many people consider themselves to be good people who love their family and friends, when in reality they may know very little about the love of God, he said.

"Christians are capable of all the forms of love in the world: they too fall in love, more or less as it happens to everyone. They too experience the benevolence that is felt in friendship. They too feel love for their country and the universal love for all humanity," the pope said.

Pope Francis rides in the popemobile
Pope Francis greets visitors as he rides the popemobile around St. Peter's Square at the Vatican before his weekly general audience May 15, 2024. (CNS photo/Lola Gomez)

"But there is a greater love, a love which comes from God and is directed toward God, which enables us to love God, to become his friends, and enables us to love our neighbor as God loves him or her, with the desire to share the friendship with God," he said.

Love is charity, he said. And "we immediately realize that it is a difficult, indeed impossible love to practice if one does not live in God."

"Our human nature makes us love spontaneously what is good and beautiful. In the name of an ideal or a great affection we can even be generous and perform heroic acts. But the love of God goes beyond these criteria," he said.

"So much love is needed to forgive. Christian love blesses those who curse while we are used to responding to insults and curses with another insult and curse," he said.

"Love is the 'narrow gate' through which we will pass in order to enter the kingdom of God," he said. "We will not be judged on generic love, but precisely on charity, on the love we concretely had."

 

As ocean temps hit record, Vatican hosts discussions on climate change, offers resources

“EWTN News Nightly” host Tracy Sabol speaks with Dr. Erin Lothes, a Catholic environmental theologian and senior manager of the Laudato Si’ Animators Program with the Laudato Si’ Movement, on on May 9, 2024. / Credit: “EWTN News Nightly” screen shot

CNA Staff, May 14, 2024 / 14:52 pm (CNA).

The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service released data showing that April was the hottest month on record for global sea surface temperatures. It was the 13th consecutive month that temperatures hit a record high of 68.97 degrees Fahrenheit. 

The report comes as the Vatican hosts a summit this week on climate change, bringing together politicians, civic leaders, lawmakers, and researchers from around the world.

The three-day conference from May 15–17 titled “From Climate Crisis to Climate Resilience” will be held at the Casina Pio IV, the seat of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, which sits in the Vatican Gardens. It will feature a series of roundtable discussions and culminate in the signing of a new international protocol that will be submitted to the United Nations.

Pope Francis has been vocal about the need for Catholics to take responsibility for the health of the environment, releasing two apostolic exhortations regarding the topic: Laudato Si’ and Laudate Deum.

In light of the alarming data about ocean temperatures, “EWTN News Nightly” host Tracy Sabol on May 9 spoke to Dr. Erin Lothes, a Catholic environmental theologian and senior manager of the Laudato Si’ Animators Program with the Laudato Si’ Movement.

“The ocean has now broken temperatures every day for more than a year,” she explained, emphasizing that this is “absolutely a big concern,” as it “causes suffering around the world.”

“It reduces biodiversity and diminishes fisheries and huge numbers of people globally depend on fish for their food, for their protein, and also for their livelihoods,” Lothes added. 

Lothes referenced Laudato Si’ in which “the pope reminds us that we all have a moral responsibility to care for creation.”

“He says, ‘This is neither optional nor secondary for every Christian,’” she explained. “And in Laudate Deum he strongly reminds us that we need to take action. We need to raise our voices and work for change.”

“He describes this in Laudato Si’ as ‘civic and political love,’ which is a wonderful way of looking at how we enact our love for each other by raising our voices, sharing our values, and calling for the change that we need in our energy systems so that it truly can be healthy for all people.”

She pointed out that Catholics have a “tremendous opportunity to take action” thanks to the Laudato Si’ Action Platform. The platform — an initiative of the Vatican Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development — provides resources for the Church to achieve real and lasting solutions to environmental problems. 

The platform offers guides and templates that can be used for churches, institutions, communities, and families to map out a path of action. Users can also take a self-assessment that is customized to their unique situation to help them understand where they stand today in terms of how they’re caring for the environment and actions they can take to start doing more. 

There are also hundreds of resources provided on the platform on different environmental topics that can be useful for spreading awareness. Users can connect with other participants and take part in events around the world.

The full “EWTN News Nightly” interview with Lothes can be viewed below.