Pope thanks health care workers, urges equal access to care for all

Pope Francis speaks in a recorded video message to an online health care conference May 8, 2021. Health care must be free from inequality and open to all those who are ill, the pope said in his remarks to the “Exploring the Mind, Body and Soul — Unite to Prevent and Unite to Cure” conference. The conference was organized jointly by the Pontifical Council for Culture, its Science and Faith Foundation and the New York-based Cura Foundation and Stem for Life Foundation. (CNS photo/courtesy Meagher Group)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis expressed his gratitude for all those who are committed to caring for the sick and supporting those in great need.

“All of us are grateful in these days to those working tirelessly to combat the pandemic, which continues to claim many lives, yet at the same time has represented a challenge to our sense of solidarity and authentic fraternity,” he said in a video message to an online conference on health care May 8.

“For this reason, concern for the centrality of the human person also demands reflection on models of health care that are accessible to all the sick, without disparity,” he said.

The pope’s message in Italian helped close a three-day virtual conference featuring more than 100 speakers presenting the latest advancements in medicine and innovative ways to deliver health care as well as discussing their theological, ethical and cultural impacts.

Titled, “Exploring the Mind, Body and Soul — Unite to Prevent and Unite to Cure,” it was the fifth health care conference organized jointly by the Pontifical Council for Culture, its Science and Faith (STOQ) Foundation and the New York-based Cura Foundation and Stem for Life Foundation, which seeks to promote stem-cell therapy and research.

In his address, the pope underlined the importance of the conference uniting philosophical and theological reflection with scientific research, especially in the field of medicine.

Thanks to such interdisciplinary studies, he said, “we can come to appreciate better the dynamics involved in the relationship between our physical condition and the state of our habitat, between health and nourishment, our psychophysical well-being and the care of the spiritual life — also through the practice of prayer and meditation — and finally between health and sensitivity to art, and especially music.”

This broader vision of and commitment to interdisciplinary research helps expand human knowledge, “which, applied to the medical sciences, translates into more sophisticated research and increasingly suitable and exact strategies of care,” he said.

One example where this has happened, he said, is in the field of genetics, with research aimed at curing disease.

“Yet this progress has also raised a number of anthropological and ethical issues, such as those dealing with the manipulation of the human genome aimed at controlling or even overcoming the aging process or at achieving human enhancement,” he said.

The pope explained the importance of understanding and describing the many facets of the human being — as body, mind and soul — in an “interdisciplinary way.”

Speaking as well to the many university students watching the conference online, the pope said, “I encourage you to undertake and pursue interdisciplinary research involving various centers of study for the sake of a better understanding of ourselves and of our human nature, with all its limits and possibilities, while always keeping in mind the transcendent horizon to which our being tends.”

The pope asked God to bless everyone’s work and expressed his hope that participants would “retain your enthusiasm, and indeed your wonderment, before the ever-deeper mystery of man.”

Pope calls for monthlong global prayer marathon for end of pandemic

Anabel Mutune, a third grader at Transfiguration Catholic School in Oakdale, Minn., prays during a Children’s Rosary Pilgrimage at Transfiguration Church in this Oct. 7, 2020, file photo. Pope Francis has called for a global prayer marathon during the Marian month of May to petition God for an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. CNS photo/Dave Hrbacek, The Catholic Spirit

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis has called for a global prayer marathon for the entire month of May, praying for the end to the pandemic. 

“The initiative will involve in a special way all shrines in the world” in promoting the initiative so that individuals, families and communities all take part in reciting the rosary, “to pray for the end of the pandemic,” said the Pontifical Council for Promoting New Evangelization in a press release April 21. 

“It is the heartfelt desire of the Holy Father that the month of May be dedicated to a prayer marathon dedicated to the theme, ‘from the entire church an unceasing prayer rises to God,'” it said. 

The theme refers to the miraculous event recounted in the Acts of the Apostles (12:1-12) when all the church prayed for Peter, who was imprisoned until God sent an angel to free him, illustrating how the Christian community comes together to pray in the face of danger and how the Lord listens and performs an unexpected miracle. 

Each day in May, there will be a livestream from one of 30 chosen Marian shrines or sanctuaries to guide the prayer at 6 p.m. Rome time (noon EDT) on all Vatican media platforms. 

The pope will open the monthlong prayer May 1 and conclude it May 31, the council said. 

Each day of the month has a different prayer intention related to the pandemic. For instance, the May 17 intention is “for all world leaders and for all heads of international organizations.” That prayer will be celebrated at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.  

The following day, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, prayers will be for all doctors and nurses. The May 23 prayer intention at the Quebec shrine, Notre Dame du Cap, is for law enforcement, military personnel and firefighters. 

The English-language list of shrines and prayer intentions can be found at https://bit.ly/3gMANYS.   

Church must help counter resistance to vaccines, health care expert says

People participate in an International Union of Superiors General online meeting about the economy and health care April 27, 2021. Sister Carol Keehan, an expert on the Vatican’s COVID-19 commission who participated in the meeting, said religious working in health care and schools need to educate people about COVID-19 and to counter resistance to vaccinations. CNS photo/courtesy International Union of Superiors General

ROME (CNS) — Members of the Catholic Church, especially religious working in health care and schools, have an important opportunity and duty to educate people about COVID-19 and to counter resistance to vaccinations, said an expert on the Vatican’s COVID-19 commission. 

Women religious and Catholic organizations who serve others every day and have people’s trust are “our best hope for safe and fair distribution of vaccines as well as the best tool for convincing people of the safety and importance of taking the vaccines,” said Sister Carol Keehan, a nurse and Daughter of Charity. 

The church also has clear teachings about the need for more ethical ways to produce and test vaccines, but it has said that receiving vaccines is not participating or cooperating with the evil of abortion, she said during an online meeting April 27 sponsored by the Rome-based International Union of Superiors General. 

The event, dedicated to how women religious can be leaders in bringing Gospel values to new models of the economy and health care, was part of a series of meetings looking at ways sisters can empower other women and accompany and support those most affected and marginalized by the pandemic. 

Sister Keehan is the chair of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission’s health task force. She gave the more than 300 participants online an overview of the two main goals of the taskforce: an equitable distribution of vaccines and treatments, and reducing the resistance to taking the vaccine. 

People have been showing resistance to the vaccine for a number of reasons, she said, and so the taskforce created a “resource kit” for church leaders and families, available in multiple languages on the commission’s website: humandevelopment.va/en/vatican-covid-19.html. 

The first part of the kit is dedicated to explaining the church’s teaching on vaccines, Sister Keehan said. 

“For years we have known that most vaccines are made and/or tested using stem cells grown in a laboratory that originated from a fetus aborted over 40 years ago. Almost all of us have had a vaccine made in this way,” she said. 

“The church has decades of theology and ethical teachings, asking that better ways of testing and producing vaccines should be a goal but that taking these vaccines, or administering them to children, is not participating or cooperating with the evil of abortion,” she said. 

“In spite of this, a number of voices immediately started refusing to take the vaccines that had been made and or tested this way. Some of them were bishops in various dioceses, as well as priests and other teachers of the faith,” she said. 

Several Vatican dicasteries stepped in again to clarify the church’s position on the acceptability of the vaccines when no others are available, and, she added, “Pope Francis has been very clear that it is a moral responsibility to take the vaccines to protect oneself, one’s family and one’s community from this deadly disease.” 

Because of “the massive amount of misinformation that is out there,” the resource kit is constantly updated with clinical and scientific facts from reputable sources, she said. What makes the kit unique, she added, is all the information is seen “through a Catholic lens” with all the related theological, ethical and moral issues included. 

Sister Keehan urged religious and Catholic organizations to recognize and utilize the credibility and trust they have with the communities they work with. 

“Many scientists have said to me that you could put the best scientists or the most senior government official in a room and their voice would be less effective than the voice of people who have been caring for others before the pandemic, during the pandemic and will be there after the pandemic,” she said. 

“This gives us a privileged place and the responsibility to help people understand from voices they trust what they need to do to protect themselves and their families,” she said. 

Religious congregations and Catholic aid groups will be key players in distributing the vaccine in poor nations where there is wide skepticism and deeply ingrained distrust of vaccination programs by the government or other groups. 

Many countries in Africa have “really good reasons” for that skepticism, she said, citing examples of people being tricked into paying for free shots, vaccines being diluted, counterfeit or sold to the wealthy. 

“There will be scams, but can we protect the poor” and those “most vulnerable to a scam” by guaranteeing the safety of donated drugs and “getting the vaccine ourselves,” she said. 

“Many people have said over and over again, ‘Pope Francis got the vaccine. Pope Francis told me I should get it for my family and that made me decide I would get it,'” she said. 

Women religious also have tremendous credibility from their decades of helping people during outbreaks of Ebola, HIV, malaria and other infectious or deadly diseases, she said. And they can have an impact once again during this current pandemic by educating people and making sure safe and effective vaccines are used correctly and go to everyone. 

The church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines” in building a better world, she said, and this global problem must be faced “as a global family.”

‘Amoris Laetitia’ family portraits: Sometimes messy, but grace-filled

Gregory K. Hillis, a professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, takes a selfie with his wife, Kim, and their sons Isaac, Leo and Sam. Hillis spoke with Catholic News Service about the “Amoris Laetitia” Family Year, which opened March 19. The year is an opportunity for Catholics to read Pope Francis’ 2016 document and discover its reflections on family life. CNS photo/courtesy of Gregory K. Hillis

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Sometimes the Catholic Church has “proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families,” Pope Francis wrote in his 2016 exhortation, “Amoris Laetitia.” 

And too often people thought that because the Church had an ideal for the family, it meant the Church was for ideal families only. 

“Of course, there aren’t any perfect families, and Pope Francis says this in effect in ‘Amoris Laetitia.’ The reality of a man and a woman is an imperfect reality, but they can perfect themselves with the sacrament of marriage, with the grace of the sacrament,” said Gabriella Gambino, undersecretary of the Dicastery for Laity, the Family and Life. 

“Marriage is a vocation; it is a path of holiness, which is perfected day by day,” she told Catholic News Service April 21. 

Pope Francis opened the “Amoris Laetitia” Family Year March 19, encouraging people to read the document, strengthen their families and support other families who may be struggling. 

Refreshing honesty 

Gregory K. Hillis, a professor of theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, has been posting tweets about his marriage and family life with the hashtag #AmorisLaetitia almost since the document was published. 

Often the tweets are humorous, like from Palm Sunday 2017: “It took a mere 10 seconds for my children to begin using their palm leaves as swords this morning. #AmorisLaetitia.” And, shortly after Easter this year: “Discount Easter candy purchased. Now to hide it from the kids #AmorisLaetitia.” 

“The tweets are a way for me to highlight that ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is so much more than just about the issue of divorce and remarriage,” the issue that attracted the most media coverage, he told CNS. “It is about the nitty-gritty of family life in a way that truly spoke to me as a father and husband.” 

With the tweets, “just like ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ I wanted to be honest about both the humorous and less-than-humorous aspects of family life,” he said. 

“‘Amoris Laetitia’ spoke about families honestly and openly, and in a way that was refreshing,” Hillis said. “The ideal is there, but the messy reality is also clearly recognized and honored.” 

The coronavirus pandemic and its various lockdowns and periods of working from home and attending class virtually have put added stress on families, but also underlined just how essential family relationships are to health, happiness and survival. 

Unprepared for so much togetherness  

Gambino and her husband have five children: a 23-year-old university student, an 18-year-old and 12-year-old triplets. They were all together, in the same apartment, during Italy’s severe lockdown in March-May 2020. 

The children attended school online and both she and her husband were working from home, but they did not have seven computers or even seven devices. The Wi-Fi would slow down and crash and, at the end of the day, all seven of them would be screen zombies. 

Gambino

“Like everyone, we were unprepared for this long period of living together without leaving the house” except to go grocery shopping, she said. “We all had to have a lot of patience.” 

“But looking back, it really was a strong moment of learning for both of us as parents and for our children. We had to learn how to be generous, for example, in sharing computers” and everyday chores, which grew with everyone home for every meal – “all seven of us there for breakfast, lunch and dinner!” 

The triplets became “exceptional cooks,” she said. But as a mom, “at the beginning I had to learn to close my eyes” to the mess they created. “Now, instead, they have become very good, because I explained to them the greatest cooks leave the kitchen clean!” 

The children understood the challenges of lockdown, she said, “but also the opportunity that it gave us to all be together and dialogue and play.” 

And, with two widowed grandparents living on their own, the children also stepped up to ease their loneliness, making sure they received a phone call from at least one grandchild every day. 

In “Amoris Laetitia,” Hillis said, Pope Francis wrote repeatedly about “manifesting generous love as parents and spouses, and this pandemic year has challenged me to live out this calling to generous love more than ever before — not always, or even often, successfully.” 

The pandemic period has been “a year characterized by disorder and anxiety, but it’s also been a year when we’ve come together as a family and spent more time together than ever before,” he said. “That came with challenges, but it also came with tremendous grace.” 

Building community with families 

Another lockdown discovery that Gambino and her husband are committed to continuing is “building community with other couples,” something that began with friends on Zoom, not just as a “pastoral” exercise but as an opportunity to chat and to share. 

“We discovered how vital it is to build a community with other families, especially when you are experiencing difficulties or going through a tough time,” she said. “Talking with other families, sharing those challenges and ideas for dealing with them — it was a real breath of fresh air. This must continue through the parish.” 

Priests around the world showed concern for families by celebrating liturgies online, organizing Zoom meetings and sending family prayer suggestions to parishioners’ homes, she said. But many of them also need to learn to welcome families as leaders in the outreach to other families — “to embrace ‘family’ as an ecclesial style” — with everyone pitching in, celebrating their different talents and caring for people in need. 

“On this, there is still work to be done,” Gambino said, because for so long, the priest was seen as the guide and he tried to “drag” everyone else along. 

The “Amoris Laetitia” Family Year, she said, should help Catholics discover that the pope’s document is about real families and has suggestions for how all Catholic families can be witnesses of the joy and beauty of marriage and family life — challenges and all. 

Equal access to health care is a matter of justice, cardinal says

A health worker checks a passenger’s temperature and pulse at a railway station platform during the coronavirus pandemic in Mumbai, India, April 7, 2021. CNS photo/Francis Mascarenhas, Reuters

Ensuring equal access to health care, especially for the less fortunate, can only be achieved through a “renewed moral commitment by the countries with the greatest resources to the countries most in need,” Cardinal Peter Turkson said.

In a message marking World Health Day 2021, Cardinal Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said that health inequality is unfair but also is “preventable through strategies that aim to ensure equal access to health care, especially for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.”

“It is desirable that universal health coverage be guaranteed to all individuals and all communities. This is an urgent goal to be achieved in order to build a fairer, healthier world, a better world, a world of peace that we dream and believe is still possible,” Cardinal Turkson wrote in the message released by the Vatican April 7.

Established in 1948, World Health Day not only marks the founding of the World Health Organization but also brings awareness to a particular global health issue.

According to the WHO’s website, the theme for 2021, “Building a fairer, healthier world for all,” is meant to highlight the need “to eliminate health inequalities,” especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In his message, Cardinal Turkson said the pandemic “has intensified long-standing social problems,” especially unequal access to health care.

“The impact of the pandemic has been harshest on the most vulnerable communities, who are most exposed to the disease with less chances of having access to quality health care services,” he said.

The pandemic, the cardinal explained, “has widened the large gap between countries that are more advantaged and those with less,” a gap that continues despite condemnation “on several occasions by various institutions.”

“There are unacceptable disparities and inequalities that deny health to a large part of the population in the ‘peripheries of the world,'” Cardinal Turkson wrote.

He also said an integral view of health that takes into account “physical, psychological, intellectual, social, cultural and spiritual dimensions of the person” can ensure the creation of “more equitable and more just health systems.”

“Acquiring this integral view allows us to understand that ensuring that everyone receives the necessary health care is an act of justice, that is, giving the person what is in his or her right,” he said.

Furthermore, the cardinal said, a healthier world can be achieved if humanity “rediscovers the sense of mutual interdependence.”

“In true fraternity, individualism and selfishness can be defeated by the reaffirmation that only the search for the good of all can lead to good for me,” he said. “The pandemic, in particular, has taught us that health is a common good so that by protecting one’s own health, the health of the other and of the entire community are protected as well.”

Cardinal Turkson also urged greater care for mental health, which is being “severely put to the test in this pandemic period,” especially for those on the front lines of the current health crisis.

“We must necessarily take urgent care of those who have taken care of us,” he said. “Those who govern as well as economic and health policymakers have a responsibility to ensure better working conditions for health care workers.”

– – –

Christ’s victory over death proclaims a second chance for all, pope says

Pope Francis walks near flowers prior to delivering his Easter message and blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) after celebrating Easter Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican April 4, 2021. CNS photo/Vatican Media

VATICAN CITY. The Easter liturgies – with the fire, sharing of light from the paschal candle, the renewal of baptismal promises and the proclamation that Jesus has risen – assure people that it is never too late to start again, Pope Francis said. 

“It is always possible to begin anew, because there is a new life that God can awaken in us in spite of all our failures,” the pope said April 3 during his celebration of the Easter Vigil. 

With Italy in lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pope Francis celebrated a pared-down vigil at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica with an estimated 200 people present and returned the next morning with a similarly small congregation for Easter Mass and to give his blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world). 

The vigil was simpler than usual, but there still was the blessing of the fire, which blazed at the foot of the basilica’s main altar, and the lighting of the Easter candle. Then, the darkened basilica slowly began to glow with the light of candles being shared by the concelebrants and the faithful present. 

In his homily at the vigil, the pope said the Gospel proclamation of the resurrection and the angel’s invitation to the women at Jesus’ tomb to “go to Galilee” was a call to return to “the place where the Lord first sought them out and called them to follow him.” 

Although his followers often misunderstood Jesus and even abandoned him “in the face of the cross,” he still urges them to “begin anew,” the pope said. 

“In this Galilee,” the pope said, “we learn to be amazed by the Lord’s infinite love, which opens new trails along the path of our defeats.” 

The pope said the call to return to Galilee also means to set out on a new path, away from the tomb and from indulging in grief. 

Like those at the tomb, he said, “many people experience such a ‘faith of memories,’ as if Jesus were someone from the past, an old friend from their youth who is now far distant, an event that took place long ago, when they attended catechism as a child.” 

“Let us go to Galilee, then, to discover that God cannot be filed away among our childhood memories, but is alive and filled with surprises,” he said. “Risen from the dead, Jesus never ceases to amaze us.” 

The call to go to Galilee – a region inhabited by “those farthest from the ritual purity of Jerusalem” – is a reminder for Christians to go out to the peripheries and imitate Jesus who brought the presence of God to those who were excluded. 

“The Risen Lord is asking his disciples to go there even now, to the settings of daily life, the streets we travel every day, the corners of our cities,” the pope said. “There the Lord goes ahead of us and makes himself present in the lives of those around us, those who share in our day, our home, our work, our difficulties and hopes.” 

Pope Francis said Jesus calls on all Christians today to “overcome barriers, banish prejudices” and to recognize the Lord “here in our Galilees, in everyday life.” 

“If on this night, you are experiencing an hour of darkness, a day that has not yet dawned, a light dimmed or a dream shattered,” he said, “open your heart with amazement to the message of Easter: ‘Do not be afraid, he has risen! He awaits you in Galilee.'” 

As is customary, Pope Francis did not preach at the Easter morning Mass, which featured the chanting of the Gospel in both Latin and Greek. 

With Italy on another lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pope gave his Easter blessing “urbi et orbi” (to the city and the world) standing inside St. Peter’s Basilica rather than from the balcony overlooking a full St. Peter’s Square. 

“The Easter message does not offer us a mirage or reveal a magic formula,” the pope said before giving the blessing. “It does not point to an escape from the difficult situation we are experiencing. The pandemic is still spreading, while the social and economic crisis remains severe, especially for the poor.” 

The pope offered prayers for the sick and those who have died of COVID-19 and for the doctors and nurses who have made “valiant efforts” to care for the pandemic’s victims. 

And he had special words of Easter hope for young people struggling in isolation from their friends. “Experiencing real human relationships, not just virtual relationships, is something that everyone needs, especially at an age when a person’s character and personality is being formed,” he said. 

“I express my closeness to young people throughout the world and, in these days, especially to the young people of Myanmar committed to supporting democracy and making their voices heard peacefully, in the knowledge that hatred can be dispelled only by love,” he said. 

Pope Francis prayed for many places in the world where the need to fight the pandemic has not silenced the weapons of war and violence. 

“This is scandalous,” he said. “Armed conflicts have not ended and military arsenals are being strengthened.” 

The Gospel witnesses to the Resurrection, he said, “report an important detail: the risen Jesus bears the marks of the wounds in his hands, feet and side. These wounds are the everlasting seal of his love for us. All those who experience a painful trial in body or spirit can find refuge in these wounds and, through them, receive the grace of the hope that does not disappoint.” 

“May the light of the risen Jesus be a source of rebirth for migrants fleeing from war and extreme poverty,” he prayed. “Let us recognize in their faces the marred and suffering face of the Lord as he walked the path to Calvary. May they never lack concrete signs of solidarity and human fraternity, a pledge of the victory of life over death that we celebrate on this day.” 

And, while the pandemic restrictions meant simpler and smaller Vatican celebrations of Easter, Pope Francis noted that in many places the limitations are stricter and even prevent people from going to church. 

“We pray that those restrictions, as well as all restrictions on freedom of worship and religion worldwide, may be lifted and everyone be allowed to pray and praise God freely,” he said. 

Calling again for a fair and speedy distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, the pope said that “in embracing the cross, Jesus bestowed meaning on our sufferings, and now we pray that the benefits of that healing will spread throughout the world.” 

Christ’s cross a beacon of hope in stormy seas, pope says at audience

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The commemoration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection during the Easter triduum brings much-needed hope to a world beset by uncertainty, Pope Francis said.

During his weekly general audience March 31, the pope said that as Christians prepare to celebrate another Easter in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, the hope brought by Christ’s cross “is like a beacon that indicates the port to ships that are still afloat on stormy seas.”

“It is a sign of the hope that does not let us down, and it tells us that not even one tear, not one cry is lost in God’s plan,” he said.

Pope Francis used his weekly general audience to reflect on each day of the triduum, beginning with Holy Thursday when Christians “relive what happened at the Last Supper.”

The Eucharist, he said, is a testament of Jesus’ love for humankind; the Lord left it for Christians “not as a remembrance, but as a memorial, as his everlasting presence.”

“In this sacrament, Jesus replaced the sacrificial victim with himself,” the pope said. “His body and blood give us salvation from the slavery of sin and death.”

Good Friday, he continued, is a “day of penance, fasting and prayer” that helps Christians feel as if they “were gathered on Calvary to commemorate the passion and the redemptive death of Jesus Christ.”

Through the adoration of the cross, he said, Christians not only “relive the journey of the innocent lamb sacrificed for our salvation” but also remember the suffering of today’s “‘sacrificed lambs,’ the innocent victims of wars, dictatorships, everyday violence, (and) abortion.”

“Before the image of the crucified God, we will bring in prayer the many, the too many, who are crucified in our time, who can receive only from him the comfort and meaning of their suffering,” he said.

Departing from his prepared remarks, Pope Francis said the light of God’s love is needed because “the world is in darkness.”

“Let us make a list of all the wars that are being fought right now, of all the children who are dying of hunger, of the children who have no education, of entire peoples destroyed by wars, by terrorism, of the many, many people who, in order to feel a little better, need drugs, the drug industry that kills. It is a calamity, it is a desert,” he said.

Continuing his reflection, the pope said Holy Saturday is a day of silence in which those who had hoped in Christ “are put to the test” and “feel like orphans.”

Nevertheless, he said, Christians should look to Mary who, after following her son “along the sorrowful path,” maintained hope “in the promise of God who raises the dead.”

“Thus, in the darkest hour of the world, she became the mother of believers, the mother of the church and a sign of hope,” the pope said. “Her witness and her intercession sustain us when the weight of the cross becomes too heavy for us.”

Pope Francis said the darkness of Holy Saturday is broken by the light and joy of Easter when “all questions and uncertainties, hesitations and fears are dispelled” by Christ’s resurrection.

“The Risen One gives us the certainty that good always triumphs over evil, that life always conquers death and that our end is not to descend lower and lower, from sadness to sadness, but to rise to the heights,” the pope said.

Virtual closeness, real community: During pandemic, Pope’s ministry flourishes online

Pope Francis is pictured on a Vatican television camera as he celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in this Feb. 17, 2021, file photo. The pope and his liturgy and communication teams have made deliberate decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic to convey the pope’s closeness to those suffering. CNS photo/Vatican Media

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis, his liturgy office and his communications team made very deliberate decisions over the past year with the goal of letting people experience how close the pope was to them in their isolation and suffering.

And people — tens of thousands of them — responded, praying with him and for him.

As the Vatican and much of Italy prepared for another Holy Week in lockdown, although a modified version compared to 2020, that dialogue continued on social media and influenced the planning of the papal liturgies, including details like the positioning of video cameras for television broadcasts and livestreaming, the choice of music and the pacing of the commentators offering translations in multiple languages.

Of course, live broadcasts have been part of the Vatican’s Easter offerings for decades.

“They are a sign of the pope’s closeness to the people of God,” Natasa Govekar, director of the theological-pastoral office of the Vatican Dicastery for Communication, told Catholic News Service.

“Most of the faithful will never have an opportunity to come to Rome to meet the pope at an audience, a Mass in St. Peter’s or another event,” she said. “So, the pope draws close to people, arriving in their homes, to share with them the word of God and prayer, to communicate the Lord’s mercy, to confirm them in the faith and to accompany them where they are.”

The Dicastery for Communication, which includes the Vatican television production center, always plans the coverage of papal Masses, including the camera positions, with the pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies.

“The most obvious difference is that with the COVID-19 regulations we have gone from a full basilica to a situation with far fewer people, distanced at least a meter from each other,” Govekar said. “That’s why it was decided to move the celebrations to a more intimate part of the basilica,” the Altar of the Chair behind Bernini’s towering baldachin.

But there is no attempt to hide the fact that the celebrations are different. In fact, Govekar said, “there is always a camera very far” from the altar that frames not only the congregation of 100-150 people, but much of the empty space around them.

A particular challenge, she said, is “relaying the community aspect” of the liturgy when the assembly is small, socially distanced and not allowed to exchange a sign of peace.

Even when it was possible to fill St. Peter’s Basilica with thousands of Catholics or fill St. Peter’s Square with tens of thousands for a Mass, she noted, Pope Francis still needed the help of a microphone and, in the square, megascreens.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, the church is using other means, and often miniscreens, to amplify his voice and help people feel that they are there, praying with him.

Experts have estimated that in the first year of the pandemic, the use of social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and others — grew by 12% as people sought ways to be connected to one another.

The Twitter (@Pontifex) and Instagram (@franciscus) accounts of Pope Francis grew as well. His Twitter accounts, in their nine language versions, had a total of more than 52 million followers March 24 — that was a growth of almost 740,000 followers in nine months, according to the Dicastery for Communication. And, over the past year, the Instagram account grew by 1 million followers to reach 7.7 million followers in late March.

Seven of the 10 most popular tweets — those “liked” or retweeted — in the past year, Govekar said, were requests for prayer with the hashtag #PrayTogether, “creating a community around the world that was praying with the Holy Father, spiritually united despite the distances.”

The comments on social media, she said, showed that people found strength and consolation in connecting with the pope and others around the world as they prayed.

“This service was especially evident in the early months of the pandemic when almost 4 billion people around the world were confined to their homes,” Govekar said. “Through the live broadcasts of the different celebrations, Pope Francis wanted to accompany them in a time of difficulty, fear and uncertainty, and to pray with them, fortify them in the midst of tribulation and communicate hope and trust in the Lord who will never abandon us.”

Over the 69 days from early March to mid-May 2020, when the public celebrations of Mass were banned in Italy, Pope Francis decided to livestream the Mass he celebrated each morning in the chapel of his residence, the Domus Sanctae Marthae.

“We received countless comments, including through the mail, that made us see just how much people felt accompanied by the ‘homiletic magisterium’ of Pope Francis, that is, how important it was for them to be able to hear his voice and not just read quotes in an article,” Govekar said.

Social media, television, radio and the internet have helped the pope “to be near to people all over the world in a year that has been difficult for everyone,” she said. “And people have responded in turn with their closeness to the pope. There has been a kind of virtual dialogue unprecedented in the history of the church.”

Vatican releases pope’s Holy Week, Easter schedule

The Vatican published Pope Francis’ calendar for Holy Week and Easter, which due to coronavirus restrictions, will be celebrated primarily in St. Peter’s Basilica with a very small congregation. While the pope is expected to preside over most of the liturgical celebrations, he is not expected to preside over the Mass of the Lord’s Supper April 1.

According to Vatican News, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, will celebrate the Mass at the Altar of the Chair in St. Peter’s Basilica. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the pope had made it a tradition to celebrate the Mass and foot-washing ritual at a prison or detention center, refugee center or rehabilitation facility. The Vatican did not give a reason for the pope’s absence, which — if he does not celebrate the liturgy elsewhere — would mark the first time he does not preside over the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

Pope approves pay cuts for cardinals, top management, religious at Vatican

The dome of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican is seen from the Aventine Hill in Rome in this May 2, 2018, file photo. Pope Francis has approved pay cuts for cardinals, top managers and religious personnel working at the Vatican. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — With the need to reduce costs and make sure employees are not laid off, Pope Francis has approved pay cuts for cardinals, clergy, religious and upper management officials who work in the Roman Curia and other Vatican entities. 

The pay cuts will go into effect starting April 1, according to a papal decree issued March 24. 

Because “the financial management of the Holy See” has seen deficits each year and because revenues have been substantially reduced with the COVID-19 pandemic, “a sustainable economic future requires today, among other decisions, adopting measures that also concern employee salaries,” the papal decree said. 

To contain costs and ensure employees are not laid off, the pope approved measures “according to criteria of proportionality and progressivity,” which resulted in cuts for lay employees with higher pay-grade levels and for priests and religious. 

Cardinals who work at the Vatican will see a 10% reduction to their salary, which has been estimated to be about 5,000 euros ($5,960) a month. 

Heads of departments and senior administrators will see an 8% cut, while those who are priests or religious will have a 3% reduction in pay. There will be a two-year freeze in automatic pay increases related to accrued seniority affecting all employees except those at the lowest pay grades, it said. 

Reductions may be waived in cases in which the employee or a close family member faces exceptional health expenses, it added. 

The measures affect those working in the Roman Curia, Vatican City State, the Vicariate of Rome and at the four papal basilicas in Rome. 

The provisions are meant to contribute to a sustainable financial future for the mission of the central offices of the church, the decree said. 

Vatican says no blessing gay unions, no negative judgment on gay people

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — While homosexual men and women must be respected, any form of blessing a same-sex union is “illicit,” said the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The negative judgment is on the blessing of unions, not the people who may still receive a blessing as individuals, it said in a statement published March 15.

The statement was a response to a question or “dubium” that came from priests and lay faithful “who require clarification and guidance concerning a controversial issue,” said an official commentary accompanying the statement.

The response to the question, “Does the church have the power to give the blessing to unions of persons of the same sex?” was “Negative.”

“It is not licit to impart a blessing on relationships, or partnerships, even stable, that involve sexual activity outside of marriage — i.e., outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open in itself to the transmission of life — as is the case of the unions between persons of the same sex,” the doctrinal office said in an explanatory note accompanying the statement. Pope Francis approved both the statement and the note for publication.

“The Christian community and its pastors are called to welcome with respect and sensitivity persons with homosexual inclinations and will know how to find the most appropriate ways, consistent with church teaching, to proclaim to them the Gospel in its fullness,” the explanatory note said.

The clarification “does not preclude the blessings given to individual persons with homosexual inclinations, who manifest the will to live in fidelity to the revealed plans of God as proposed by church teaching.”

“Rather, it declares illicit any form of blessing that tends to acknowledge their unions as such. In this case, in fact, the blessing would manifest not the intention to entrust such individual persons to the protection and help of God, in the sense mentioned above, but to approve and encourage a choice and a way of life that cannot be recognized as objectively ordered to the revealed plans of God,” said the doctrinal office.

The statement came days before the launch March 19 of a yearlong reflection on “Amoris Laetitia” that will focus on the family and conjugal love.

The date marks the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), which affirmed church teaching on family life and marriage, but also underlined the importance

of the church meeting people where they are in order to help guide them on a path of discernment and making moral decisions.

The doctrinal congregation said in its note that some church communities had promoted “plans and proposals for blessings of unions of persons of the same sex.”

“Such projects are not infrequently motivated by a sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons, to whom are proposed paths of growth in faith,” it said.

In fact, the question of blessing same-sex unions arose from this “sincere desire to welcome and accompany homosexual persons” as indicated by Pope Francis at the conclusion of the two synodal assemblies on the family, it said.

That invitation, it added, was for communities “to evaluate, with appropriate discernment, projects and pastoral proposals directed to this end,” and in some cases, those proposals included blessings given to the unions of persons of the same sex.

The doctrinal congregation said the church does not and cannot have the power to impart her blessing on such unions and, therefore, “any form of blessing that tends to acknowledge their unions as such” is illicit.

That is because a blessing “would constitute a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing invoked on the man and woman united in the sacrament of matrimony,” it said, citing paragraph 251 of “Amoris Laetitia,” which reiterated the synod members’ conclusion that “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family.”

“Only those realities which are in themselves ordered to serve those ends are congruent with the essence of the blessing imparted by the church,” it said. As such, it is illicit to bless any relationship or partnership that is outside the indissoluble union of a man and a woman open to the transmission of life, it added.

Declaring “the unlawfulness of blessings of unions between persons of the same sex is not therefore, and is not intended to be, a form of unjust discrimination, but rather a reminder of the truth of the liturgical rite and of the very nature of the sacramentals, as the church understands them,” the doctrinal office said.

The church teaches that “men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.'”

As such, the doctrinal note makes a “fundamental and decisive distinction between persons and the union. This is so that the negative judgment on the blessing of unions of persons of the same sex does not imply a judgment on persons,” it said.

Such blessings are illicit for three reasons, it said:

— In addition to such a blessing implying “a certain imitation or analogue of the nuptial blessing” imparted to a man and a woman united in the sacrament of matrimony, there is the nature and value of blessings.

— Blessings belong to “sacramentals, which are ‘liturgical actions of the church’ that require consonance of life with what they signify and generate,” so “a blessing on a human relationship requires that it be ordered to both receive and express the good that is pronounced and given by the blessing.”

— And, “the order that makes one fit to receive the gift is given by the ‘designs of God inscribed in creation, and fully revealed by Christ the Lord.'” The church does not have power over God’s designs nor is she “the arbiter of these designs and the truths they express, but their faithful interpreter and witness.”

“God himself never ceases to bless each of his pilgrim children in this world, because for him ‘we are more important to God than all of the sins that we can commit,'” the congregation said. “But he does not and cannot bless sin: he blesses sinful man, so that he may recognize that he is part of his plan of love and allow himself to be changed by him. He in fact ‘takes us as we are, but never leaves us as we are.'”