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Florida Catholic Conference asks governor to halt execution of serial killer

Tallahassee, Fla., May 21, 2019 / 05:38 pm (CNA).- The Catholic bishops of Florida are calling on the state’s governor to spare the life of Bobby Joe Long, a convicted serial killer who is scheduled to be executed on Thursday.

“Although [Long] caused much harm, society has been safe from his aggressive acts in the decades of his incarceration. Without taking his life, society can be protected while he endures the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole,” said Michael Sheedy, executive director of the Florida Catholic Conference, in a May 20 letter to Governor Ron DeSantis.

Long has been on death row since 1985 and is scheduled to die by lethal injection on May 23.

He pleaded guilty to killing eight women in and near Tampa Bay during an eight-month span in 1984. He also claimed to have raped dozens of women.

Long’s lawyer has argued that the 65 year old is mentally ill and suffers from epilepsy, which could lead to him having a seizure when the lethal injection drugs are administered. The lawyer said that Long is constitutionally ineligible for the death penalty.

The Florida Supreme Court recently denied Long’s appeal on procedural grounds.

On behalf of the state’s bishops, Sheedy asked the governor to consider commuting the sentence to life without parole.

“Floridians around the state are gathering in prayer for all who have been harmed by Mr. Long’s actions, for him, and for an end to the use of the death penalty. We also pray for you as you consider this request,” he said.

Sheedy acknowledged the heinous nature of Long’s crimes but said that capital punishment will not further public safety.

Since Long was sentenced, Sheedy said, modern medicine has gained a greater understanding of brain trauma and its effects on behavior. He highlighted the history of Long’s brain injuries.

“His attorneys have filed briefs that call attention to the multiple traumas he experienced throughout his life, including the motorcycle accident he suffered in 1974. That incident profoundly affected him and his behaviors. It contributed to his receiving a disability rating from the military, from which he was honorably discharged,” said Sheedy.

Even without these mitigating circumstances, the Florida Catholic Conference would still oppose the death penalty for Long, he said, pointing to a change in the Catehcism of the Catholic Church last year to hold the death penalty as inadmissible.

“The death penalty is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and denies the possibility of redemption,” Sheedy said.

“Please promote a consistent pro-life ethic in our state. The cycle of violence – to which Mr. Long’s acts have contributed – must end. His execution would only perpetuate it.”

Democratic governor of Louisiana says he will sign heartbeat bill

Baton Rouge, La., May 21, 2019 / 05:05 pm (CNA).- The governor of Louisiana - a Catholic Democrat - says he will sign a bill banning abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, if the legislation arrives on his desk.

“My inclination is to sign it,” said Gov. John Bel Edwards, according to the Monroe News Star.

“It's consistent with my unblemished pro-life record in my years as a legislator and governor,” he said earlier this month.

Last year, Edwards signed a bill to ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. The governor has cited his Catholic faith as influencing his pro-life beliefs.

The bill still needs approval by the House. If enacted into law, it would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, usually around six weeks into pregnancy. Similar laws have been passed in several other states this year, including Kentucky, Georgia, Mississippi, and Ohio.

While the national Democratic platform is clear in its support for legal abortion, Edwards said on his monthly radio show that his views align with many members of his party in Louisiana.

“I know that for many in the national party, on the national scene, that's not a good fit. But I will tell you, here in Louisiana, I speak and meet with Democrats who are pro-life every single day,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

Edwards ran for governor on a pro-life platform. In a TV advertisement in 2015, his wife Donna had spoke about her first pregnancy. She said they were pressured to have an abortion by the doctor after they found out their daughter had spina bifida. They couple refused, and their daughter is now married and employed as a school counselor.

“I was 20 weeks pregnant with our first child when the doctor discovered she had Spina Bifida and encouraged me to have an abortion. I was devastated, but John Bel never flinched. He just said ‘No, no we are going to love this baby no matter what’,” said Donna in the video.

Edwards is up for re-election this year. According to the AP, his Republican opponents U.S. Representative Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone have tried to associate him with the abortion advocacy of the national Democratic party.

But the governor rejects that characterization.

“This is not an easy issue to pigeonhole people - or especially me - on, at least, because I don't think the labels really work,” Edwards said.

Pennsylvania Catholic church vandalized with pro-choice graffiti

Philadelphia, Pa., May 21, 2019 / 03:54 pm (CNA).- A Catholic church in Pennsylvania was vandalized with pro-choice graffiti over the weekend as the abortion debate escalates around the country, following the passage of a major abortion law in Alabama.

Parishioners at Notre Dame de Lourdes parish in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania were greeted at Sunday Mass by messages that had been spray-painted on the church’s doors and outside walls, according to CBS Philly.

A message painted in black on the front doors read: “You do not have the right to decide how others live.” Another message on the side of the church read: “#ProChoice.”

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">A church in <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/DelawareCounty?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#DelawareCounty</a> was vandalized with abortion rights graffiti. <a href="https://twitter.com/JoeHoldenCBS3?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@joeholdencbs3</a> has the story: <a href="https://t.co/MTdrO6GehW">https://t.co/MTdrO6GehW</a></p>&mdash; CBS Philly (@CBSPhilly) <a href="https://twitter.com/CBSPhilly/status/1130311097733582848?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">May 20, 2019</a></blockquote>
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“It was very shocking to come up to the church and see that,” Jessica Prince told CBS Philly. “I’d have to say the first half of Mass was me crying the whole time because I was so upset somebody would do that to the church.”

“If people wanted to come and stand outside our church and protest our beliefs, go for it,” Prince added, “but vandalizing a property, I think, is taking it way too far.”

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia told CBS Philly in a statement that security footage of the incident had been found and handed over to police, who were investigating the incident.

“...the parish will cooperate with law enforcement as it investigates the incident. This afternoon, parishioners successfully removed the graffiti,” the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said.

In February of this year, an incident in which a man threw a statue of Mary into the trash and damaged the statue at a Brooklyn parish was investigated as a hate crime by authorities.

The graffiti incident comes after Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law a bill that will outlaw nearly all abortions in the state. The law is intended to directly challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared it unconstitutional for states to prohibit abortions.

The Human Life Protection Act (HB314) will make attempting or performing an abortion a felony offense for doctors, though women would not face criminal charges for undergoing an abortion.

It also comes just weeks after Pennsylvania state representative Brian Sims posted videos to Twitter in which he harassed and doxed multiple people, including three minors, who were praying quietly outside of a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia.

Sims later apologized for violating Planned Parenthood’s policy of not engaging protestors, although he did not apologize to the woman he had confronted.

 

Burns: 'Sensational' raid on Dallas chancery was 'traumatic' and unnecessary

Dallas, Texas, May 21, 2019 / 03:05 pm (CNA).- The Bishop of Dallas says that a May 15 police raid on diocesan offices was sensationalism, traumatic, and a waste of resources.

“This event was most traumatic for those who were present in the building at the time, as some of the approximate 40 law enforcement agents approached employees in ski masks and SWAT gear,” Dallas Bishop Edward Burns said in a statement.

Burns said that while a subpoena would have sufficed for obtaining documents from the diocese, “the Dallas Police Department chose the sensational action of conducting this unnecessary raid.”

“We find this week’s events to be most troubling and consuming of significant resources that could have been put to much better use.”

Investigators from the Dallas child exploitation unit arrived at the chancery the morning of May 15 to search for information and evidence in relation to five current or former clergy of the diocese.

According to a search warrant affidavit, the investigation focused on Fr. Edmundo Paredes, Fr. Richard Thomas Brown, Fr. Alejandro Buitrago, Fr. William Joseph Hughes, Jr., and Fr. Jeremy Myers.

Searches were also carried out at a warehouse storage facility and a nearby parish.

All five men were included in a list of names of clergy “credibly” accused of sexual abuse released by Texas’ dioceses in January. The Diocese of Dallas released the name of 31 accused clerics, including 24 incardinated in the diocese and seven priests either from other dioceses or religious orders who had worked in Dallas.

Burns said that the raid was executed because police falsely believed the diocese was hiding from police information that seemed to be missing from its files.

“But in reality, the Diocese cannot turn over what it does not have. All of the files for the names in the affidavit have been turned over, and the Diocese was working directly with Police on this, spending hours combing through thousands of files, some of which were decades old,” he wrote.

While some 51 pages were given to police well after initial documents were given to police, Burns said this was because they were discovered during an ongoing review of 221,855 pages of relevant documents in possession of the diocese.

“To imply that these documents were intentionally withheld in any capacity is to truly misrepresent the nature of our correspondence with the Dallas Police Department,” Burns added.

The raid, Burns said, represented a breakdown in collaboration between police and the diocese.

“Despite months of working with members of the Dallas Police Department and civil officials with respect to the release of our list of credible allegations on January 31, 2019, some members of the Police Department still felt it necessary to write the affidavit and institute this raid,” the bishop lamented.

“In speaking to civil authorities, I say that the Catholic Church needs you; we do not want to feel as if we are your enemies, but that is precisely what we have been made to feel today. I will continue to work diligently in removing even the hint of sexual impropriety among the clerics in this Diocese, and I pray that the Dallas Police Department will help me to do this.”

Archbishop Gregory pledges openness at ‘defining moment’ in Washington archdiocese

Washington D.C., May 21, 2019 / 12:51 pm (CNA).- Archbishop Wilton Gregory expressed “deep gratitude and immeasurable joy” as he took charge of the nation’s capital see Tuesday.

“I want to be a welcoming shepherd who laughs with you whenever we can, who cries with you whenever we must, and who honestly confesses his faults and failings before you when I commit them, not when they are revealed,” Gregory said to applause during his May 21 installation Mass as Archbishop of Washington, D.C. in Washington’s National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

“We stand at a defining moment for this local faith community,” Gregory said.

“Our recent sorrow and shame do not define us; rather, they serve to chasten and strengthen us to face tomorrow with spirits undeterred.”

Calling his installation as the seventh Archbishop of Washington an “indescribably humbling moment,” Gregory pledged himself to a new era of openness in Washington.

The archbishop’s installation Mass was presided over by apostolic nuncio Archbishop Christoph Pierre and attended by eight cardinals, more than 50 bishops, some 300 priests, and nearly 100 deacons.

U.S. bishops’ conference president Daniel DiNardo, reportedly still recovering from a March stroke, was not in attendance.

The celebration was held at the National Shrine instead of Washington’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral in order to accommodate the crowds, numbering about 3,000.

Members of the faithful from around the archdiocese gathered outside the basilica waving flags and banners of welcome before the Mass began.

A Gospel choir led the music during the Mass.

Acknowledging the scandals that have rocked the Church, both in Washington and around the world, Gregory said, “We have been tossed about by an unusually turbulent moment in our own faith journeys recently and for far too long.”

“We clerics and hierarchs have irrefutably been the source of the current tempest.”

Recalling the image of the apostles’ fear on stormy seas, Gregory told the assembly that true peace is found by remembering that Christ was in the apostles’ boat.

“He invites us to place our trust in Him - not in trite and easy programs - but in Him and Him alone.”

Despite the pressure of recent scandals, Gregory said he had already received an “affectionate and embarrassingly gracious welcome.”

“The example I wish to set forth for you is that of a man filled with the faith, hope and joy of knowing Jesus Christ is in the boat.”

Gregory thanked Pope Francis for the “righteous challenge - more an opportunity” to carry the Gospel message to the poor, the marginalized, and the neglected.

“Beginning today, that is my take here in the Archdiocese of Washington.”

Lourdes Rivera, a local mother of 14, told CNA after the Mass that she was “overjoyed” with Gregory’s homily.

“He spoke like a father - a father. I am so happy. He’s our new father here in Washington and our family now feels even bigger.”

Local resident Everett Jacobs added his hope that Gregory's arrival will bring fresh impetus to the new evangelization in the archdiocese.

“Bishop Gregory's pastoral spirit represents a reaffirmation of God's love for the Archdiocese of Washington. I look forward to his fresh proclamation of the gospel,” Jacobs said.

Gregory’s appointment was first reported on May 28, and his installation has been eagerly anticipated. Technically, Washington has been without an archbishop since Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s resignation was accepted by the pope in October last year, though Wuerl himself has served as interim leader of the archdiocese since that time.

Gregory paid tribute to his predecessor during his homily, calling Wuerl a “cherished friend” and “above all, a true Christian gentleman.”

The presence of retired Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles at the Mass generated some controversy among Catholics in attendance. Mahony has been accused of impeding police investigations of clerical sexual abuse in the 1980s, and was in 2013 relieved of public and administrative duties in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The Archbishop of Washington is generally viewed as one of the most influential Churchmen in the United States; the five most recent archbishops were all created cardinals - including the now-laicized Theodore McCarrick. While Gregory, 71, is widely expected to be named a cardinal in the future, it is usual for the pope to wait until the previous cardinal archbishop from the same diocese turns 80 years old and becomes ineligible to vote in a conclave. Wuerl will turn 79 in November.

As a former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2001 to 2004, Gregory was responsible for helping to lead the American hierarchy through the fallout of the Church’s 2002 sexual abuse scandals. He oversaw the formation and implementation of the “Dallas Charter” and USCCB’s “Essential Norms” in 2002.

Gregory’s appointment is also historic because he is the first African-American to be appointed archbishop in Washington, D.C.; the city itself is more than 50% African-American. Gregory is also the first convert to Catholicism to be appointed Archbishop of Washington.

Severely disabled French man taken off, returned to life support

Reims, France, May 21, 2019 / 06:09 am (CNA).- A severely disabled French man, who has been artificially fed and hydrated in a hospital in northeastern France for over 10 years, was taken off life support Monday, hours before the hospital was ordered by a French court to return the support.

A French court had ruled in favor of euthanizing Vincent Lambert earlier this month.

Doctors in a hospital in Reims had removed Lambert’s feeding and hydration tubes early May 20, and were beginning to administer sedatives, when a challenge passed the Paris appeals court and the hospital was ordered to delay ending life support.

The decision was delayed in order to give the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which is affiliated with the United Nations, more time to review the case.

Euthanasia is illegal in France. However, a 2005 law allows physicians to refrain from using “disproportionate” treatments “with no other effect than maintaining life artificially.”

Lambert, 42, has been a tetraplegic and severely disabled for more than 10 years, after he sustained severe head injuries in a traffic accident in 2008.

Since then, Lambert has been at the center of a protracted court battle over whether to have his food and hydration removed. Lambert’s wife and six of his eight siblings have supported the removal of life support, while his parents have fought against it.

Vatican officials on Tuesday condemned the removal of food and hydration from Vincent Lambert.

In a joint statement May 21, Cardinal Kevin Farrell, prefect of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life, and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said the interruption of food and hydration entail a “serious violation of the dignity of the person.”

Lambert has been described by some medical professionals as being in a “vegetative state.” Farrell and Paglia stated that though this is a “serious pathological condition,” it does not in any way “compromise the dignity of the persons who are in this condition, nor their fundamental rights to life and care, understood as continuity of basic human assistance.”

Food and water, they continued, are a form of essential care, and do not comprise “unreasonable therapeutic obstinancy.”

The Catholic Church does not require the use of extraorinary means to preserve life, but considers the provision of food and hyration to be an ordinary standard of care.

“The suspension of [food and hydration] represents, rather, a form of abandonment of the patient, based on a merciless judgment on his quality of life, expression of a culture of waste that selects the most fragile and defenseless people, without recognizing their uniqueness and immense value,” Farrell and Paglia wrote.

They also expressed the hope that an effective solution for preserving the life of Lambert can be found, and pledged the prayers of Pope Francis and the Church for that intention.

In 2015, the European Court of Human Rights approved the removal of Lambert’s life support, arguing in a 12-5 decision, that the choice to stop his intravenous feeding did not violate European rights laws.

Gregor Puppinck, director general of the European Centre for Law and Justice, warned at the time that the court’s decision put “at risk the ‘legal death’ of tens of thousands of patients in Europe.”

Puppinck had said the ruling means it is legal for states to “cause the death of a patient in a minimally conscious state” and means “we can again legally induce the death of a disabled patient who did not ask to die.”

A lower French court had previously ruled that Lambert should continue to receive food and hydration. In January 2014 a panel of nine judges in Chalons-en-Champagne said removing food and hydration is “a grave and clearly illegal attack on the fundamental right to life.”

The panel added that Lambert is “neither sick nor at the end of his life.”

The bishops of France reiterated Catholic teaching against euthanasia in a January 2014 document, stating that God’s commandment “Thou shall not kill” is “the foundation of all social life respectful of others, especially the most vulnerable.”

In March 2018, 118 French bishops signed a declaration promoting end-of-life care and explaining the Church’s opposition to suicide in all forms.

Pope Francis addressed Lambert’s case during a Regina Coeli address in April 2018. He asked for prayers for people such as Lambert, “who live, at times for a long period, in a serious state of illness, medically assisted for their basic needs.”

“Every offense or wound or violence against the body of our neighbor is an outrage to God the creator,” he said, adding that, “in the flesh of these people we find the flesh of Christ.”

 

This story was updated with the statement of Cardinal Kevin Farrell and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia.

Pope Francis: Bishops who do not know their priests weaken the Church

Vatican City, May 21, 2019 / 04:08 am (CNA).- Pope Francis said Monday that each bishop has a duty to have a strong, close relationship with his priests with a firm warning that episcopal aloofness and favoritism weakens the mission of the Church.

“The relationship between us bishops and our priests is, unquestionably, one of the most vital issues in the life of the Church, it is the backbone on which the diocesan community is based,” Pope Francis told Italian bishops gathered at the Vatican for their annual meeting May 20-23.

“Unfortunately, some bishops are struggling to establish acceptable relationships with their priests, thus risking the ruin of their mission and even weakening the mission of the Church itself,” he said.

Pope Francis said that bishops need to understand that at this time many priests feel continually under attack because of the crimes of others in the priesthood, and they need encouragement during this difficult time.

“This requires, first of all, closeness to our priests, who need to find the bishop's door and his heart always open,” he said.

The pope warned the Italian bishops that hierarchical communion “collapses when it is infected by any form of personal power or self-gratification,” but in turn is strengthened by “a spirit of total abandonment and service to the people of God.”

Francis also stressed that bishops must not “fall into the temptation to approach only the sympathetic priests or flatterers” or to “hand over all responsibilities to available priests or ‘climbers.’”

In addition to the importance of the relationship between bishops and priests, Pope Francis outlined two other priorities for the Italian bishops’ conference (CEI) assembly taking place in the Vatican’s synod hall this week: synodality and the implementation of a more streamlined annulment process announced in 2015.

“The success of the reform necessarily passes through a conversion of structures and people; and therefore we do not allow the economic interests of some lawyers or the fear of losing the power of some judicial vicars to hold back or delay the reform,” he said.

The pope concluded his speech by calling on the bishops to be a spiritual father to each of their priests by taking an interest and finding time to listen to everyone, so that each priest feels valued and encouraged by his bishop.

“If a bishop receives the call of a priest, answer within the day, at most the next day, so that that priest will know that he has a father,” Pope Francis recommended.

“The solid relationship between the Bishop and his priests is based on the unconditional love witnessed by Jesus on the cross, which represents the only real rule of behavior for bishops and priests,” Pope Francis said. “It is also based on mutual respect that manifests fidelity to Christ, love for the Church, adherence to the Good News.”

With record number of seminarians, Phoenix diocese pledges support

Phoenix, Ariz., May 21, 2019 / 12:00 am (CNA).- With a record-high number of seminarians, the Diocese of Phoenix has dedicated more funds to support the formation of the Arizona diocese’s future priests.

There are 40 men studying to become priests in the Diocese of Phoenix, according to the Catholic Sun. That is the highest number of seminarians in diocesan history, and double the number of seminarians the diocese had eight years ago.

The formation costs of seminarians are often met through private donations. However, the diocese has allocated an additional $4 million from an ongoing fundraising campaign to support the education and living expenses of future priests.

The Catholic Sun reported that it costs $40,000 to support each seminarian per year. This covers expenses including, tuition, board, and health insurance. Each seminarian undergoes at least five years of official formation.

The money will be taken from the “Together Let Us Go Forth ~ Juntos Sigamos Adelante,” a campaign that began in 2017, and aims to raise $100 million in support of the area’s growing Catholic community. The money will help fund ministries, charities, schools, and churches.

Cande de Leon, director of the Office of Mission Advancement, told the Catholic Sun that a recent diocesan poll found that priestly development is a high priority for parishioners and Church leaders. The vocations aspect of the campaign, he said, will allow the laity to be directly involved with priestly formation by their donations.

“It is important to the Catholics in the Diocese of Phoenix,” de Leon said. “It gives every Catholic an opportunity to help play a part in the formation of our priests by making a sacrificial gift. The seminarians are making great sacrifices for us — the ‘Together’ campaign is an opportunity to make a sacrifice to our seminarians before they are priests.”

Anthony Dang, a Phoenix seminarians, told the Catholic Sun that support from his family and the diocese has given him the opportunity to engage in his studies without stress about how to pay for them.

“I am appreciative of what the diocese has done to cover the high cost of seminary formation,” Dang said.

“I am very grateful for that …. I look forward to being with the people and meeting them where they are at and supporting them in their lives, in whatever situation they happen to be in - to be an instrument of God to bring the light of Christ to others.”

Philippine Catholics lead AIDS memorial event

Iloilo City, Philippines, May 20, 2019 / 07:06 pm (CNA).- Filipino Catholic leaders in the central province of Iloilo held an AIDS memorial event over the weekend, to raise awareness and support for those affected by HIV/AIDS.

The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial (IACM) was held at St Vincent Ferrer Seminary in Iloilo City on May 19, according to the Philippine Information Agency. The theme of the event was “One Big Fight for PLHIV Health and Rights.”

The event was organized by the Philippine Catholic HIV and AIDS Network (PhilCHAN), part of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines. Organizers partnered with the health department at the Center for Health Development.

Sister Mila Grace Silab, president of St. Paul University Iloilo and chair of PhilCHAN-Iloilo, said the purpose of the event was “to strengthen our support to our brothers and sisters living with HIV and promote our mission to raise awareness,” the Philippine Information Agency reported.

The event included Mass, a candle lighting ceremony, a theater performance, and music. Father Dan Vicente Cancino, executive secretary of the Commission on Health Care for the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, also spoke at the event.

Participants in the event included representatives from government agencies, hospitals, schools, faith groups, businesses and civil society organizations, according to the Philippine Information Agency.

South Sudan president: I was ‘almost trembling’ as Pope Francis begged me to make peace

Juba, South Sudan, May 20, 2019 / 04:32 pm (CNA).- In an unprecedented gesture last month, Pope Francis kissed the feet of several South Sudanese leaders, who were visiting the Vatican for a retreat, in a plea for peace in the country.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir told EWTN News that the exchange, which garnered attention around the world, left him “almost trembling.”

“I felt humbled at the humility of the Holy Father, to bend down on the ground and kiss my feet,” Kiir told EWTN News in an interview May 7.

“I was almost trembling because that thing has not happened before, except at the time when Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. And it should have been the opposite; his disciples should have been the ones to wash his feet...this is what came into my mind when the Pope knelt down.”

Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar met with the pope April 10-11 during a retreat at the Vatican.  The pope hosted the retreat specifically for the leaders, who have been at war with each other for years.

Pope Francis encouraged the South Sudanese leaders to “seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you,” and told them he was praying for them to become peacemakers, who “build peace through dialogue, negotiation and forgiveness.”

“We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God our Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace,” he said.

In 2011, the predominantly Christian South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, which has a Muslim majority and been governed mostly by Islamic law since the 1980s.

A five-year civil war began shortly after the country gained its independence. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.

The fighting has primarily taken place between those forces loyal to Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar. The war has left 2.1 million people internally displaced, with another 2.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations.

“The purpose of this retreat is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will...It is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us, to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan, and to commit ourselves, reinvigorated and reconciled, to the building up of your nation,” the pope told Kiir and Machar.

Kiir and Machar signed a tenuous peace agreement in September 2018, which the country’s Catholic bishops have called “fatally flawed” because it does not address the complex root causes of the conflict.

“Taking the decades and years of mistrust that had existed between these different forces, it’s not an easy thing” to have peace established overnight, Bishop Eduardo Kussala of Tombura-Yambio in South Sudan told EWTN News.

Still, Kussala said the bishops’ conference is grateful for and encouraged by the pope’s meeting with the leaders of opposing groups in South Sudan.

“We have tried to keep the momentum, to continue to work harder and make sure peace is actually in this country….It has again energized us” to serve the leaders and the people, he said.

Kiir said his meeting with Pope Francis was especially meaningful for him, as he grew up in an area of South Sudan that was evangelized primarily by Catholic missionaries, from whom he has learned much.

“Jesus came to the world to teach people to forgive and to live in peace with whoever is near you. And we as Catholics, especially in South Sudan, we have learned a lot from God’s teaching,” he reflected.  

“This is why [although] we have been under oppression all this time...we’re able to reconcile with those oppressors and then we see them as brothers and sisters.”

Kiir said the moment when the Pope displayed such humility was inspiring to him as the leader of the country.

“The feelings that I had at the moment, at that hour, was that I should try my best when I come back to South Sudan. I should try my best to bring peace to my people, so that people reconcile among themselves, and people do not think of fighting again,” Kiir said.

Bishop Kussala said his diocese has been working on peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.

“We feel that finding local answers, local solutions to the problems emerging among us is the way forward,” he said.

The diocese recently united with other church groups to bring 10,000 young men back from the bush, where they had been fighters, and to prepare the community for reconciliation and forgiveness.

“Many of them are being integrated into the government and are already working in the different organized forces. Others are also being engaged in social and economic activities,” he said.

Kussala emphasized the spiritual aspect of the peace process. He said it is important to see one another with the eyes of faith.

“[We must] believe that we are all equal, we are children of God. We have to forgive each other, that is our strong weapon,” he said.