(Vatican Radio) Pope Francis concluded his Apostolic Visit to Mexico on Wednesday, thanking the Mexican people for their welcome. The Aeromexico Boeing that is bringing Pope Francis back to the Vatican at the end of his 12th Apostolic Journey abroad has taken off from the International Airport of Ciudad Juarez.


And it was the Mexican airline that flew him throughout his visit during which he travelled from Mexico City to Chiapas, Morelia, and Chihuahua.

As reported on the airline webpage, Pope Francis is an easy passenger: “Known for his humility and simple taste, very few special accommodations have been made to welcome the Pope onboard. Meal service has been arranged with suggestions from the Vatican, and the Boeing Dreamliner 787 has been equipped to host an onboard press conference. True to his reputation, the Pope has very humble needs for a head of state”.

Pope Francis is the third Pope to be flown by Mexico’s oldest airline, after Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

He arrived Rome in early afternoon Thursday, February 18. As is traditional, both before and after an apostolic trip, the Holy Father marked his return to Rome with prayers of thanks before the image of Mary, known as Salus Populi Romani. at St. Mary Major basilica. He was greeted and applauded by many faithful.



From my colleagues at CNA/EWTN News in Ciudad Juarez:

At the Mexico-U.S. border town of Ciudad Juarez, Pope Francis told hundreds of thousands of people present to beg God for the “gift of tears” over the suffering of others, especially forced migration.
Juarez-US Border

“Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts,” he said during the Feb. 17 Mass at Benito Juárez stadium.

“No more death! No more exploitation!”

Pope Francis drew on the day’s reading from Jonah in which God calls upon the prophet to go and convert the Ninevites, whose city was “self-destructing as a result of oppression and dishonor, violence and injustice.”

“God sent him to testify to what was happening, he sent him to wake up a people intoxicated with themselves,” he said.

Jonah’s message to the Ninevites and God’s divine mercy saved the people from self-destruction, proving that “there is always the possibility of change, we still have time to transform what is destroying us as a people, what is demeaning our humanity.”

This account presents us with the very mystery of divine mercy, the pontiff said.

“Mercy always appeals to the latent and numbed goodness within each person…It seeks and invites us to conversion, it invites us to repentance; it invites us to see the damage being done at every level. Mercy always pierces evil in order to transform it,” he said.

Pope Francis traveled to Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city that borders El Paso, Texas, to celebrate Mass during the final day of his Feb. 12-17 visit to Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of people attended the Mass, which included faithful on both sides of the border.

At this place, along with many other border cities between the neighboring countries where thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans try to enter the United States, the story of the Ninevites’ conversion “echoes forcefully among us today” and invites us to conversion, Pope Francis said.

“In this Year of Mercy, with you here, I beg for God’s mercy; with you I wish to plead for the gift of tears, the gift of conversion,” he said.

“To weep over injustice, to cry over corruption, to cry over oppression,” the Pope said. “They are tears that can sensitize our gaze and our attitude hardened and especially dormant in the face of another’s suffering. They are the tears that can break us, capable of opening us to conversion.”

So often the humanitarian crisis of forced migration is measured with numbers and statistics, but in order to open our hearts to conversion, the Holy Father said, “we want to instead measure with names, stories, families.”

This journey, filled with “legal vacuums,” always “ensnares” and “destroys the poorest.”

The young are especially vulnerable in the flight of forced migration, he said calling them “cannon fodder,” as they are “persecuted and threatened when they try to flee the spiral of violence and the hell of drugs.”

He praised civil and religious organizations dedicated to “accompanying migrants” and “defending life” calling them “signs lighting the way and announcing salvation” just as Jonah did.

“By their very lives they are prophets of mercy; they are the beating heart and the accompanying feet of the Church that opens its arms and sustains,” Pope Francis said.

He closed urging those present to ask for God’s mercy and grace, saying that it’s not too late for conversion.

“This time for conversion, this time for salvation, is the time for mercy,” he said. “And so, let us say together in response to the suffering on so many faces: In your compassion and mercy, Lord, have pity on us … cleanse us from our sins and create in us a pure heart, a new spirit.”


Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, Feb 17, 2016 / 03:29 pm (CNA).- Speaking to laborers in the Mexican City of Juarez on Wednesday, Pope Francis laid out several key areas of focus in fighting what he called “the cycle of drug trafficking and violence.”

“One of the greatest scourges for young people is the lack of opportunities for study and for sustainable and profitable work, which would permit them to work for the future,” the Pope said Feb. 17.

He said that this lack of opportunity frequently leads to situations of poverty, which then becomes “the best breeding ground for the young to fall into the cycle of drug trafficking and violence.”

This, the Pope said, “is a luxury which no one can afford; we cannot allow the present and future of Mexico to be alone and abandoned.”

Pope Francis met with members of Mexico’s workforce Feb. 17 in Ciudad Juarez on his last day in the country. Juarez borders the U.S. city of El Paso, Texas, and is a major destination for thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America who want to enter the United States.

The Pope’s visit to Juarez is the last in a series of daytrips he has made to some of the poorest and most violent areas of the country, including the state of Chiapas and the city of Morelia in Mexico’s Michoacán state.

His final stop in Juarez has special meaning not only because of the border Mass he will celebrate later in the afternoon, but also because of the sharp distinction between the economic state of the two countries on each side of the border.

Before speaking to the workers, Pope Francis listened to the testimonies of both a married couple who work, and high-level businessman.

Daisy Flores Gamez and her husband Jesus Varela Arturo Gurrola expressed their concern that economic problems are making it increasingly more difficult to balance family life and true care for one’s children. They also said that, in their opinion, the decline and conflict of values is due to the absence of parents in the home.

The Pope also heard from Juan Pablo Castanon, national president of the Business Coordinating Council, who shared his concerns on problems related to poverty and unemployment, and stressed the importance of developing technology, but not allowing it to take the place of people.

In his speech to the workers, Pope Francis said that “more needs to be done” in fostering a culture of dialogue, encounter and inclusion.
“Unfortunately, the times we live in have imposed the paradigm of economic utility as the starting point for personal relationships,” he said, noting that the current mentality pushes for “the greatest possible profits, immediately and at any cost.”

This mentality not only destroys the ethical dimension of business, but also ignores the fact that the best investment to be made is in people – both as individuals and as families, he said.

When the flow of people is put “at the service of the flow of capital,” the result is the exploitation of employees “as if they were objects to be used and discarded,” Francis said, quoting his environmental encyclical, Laudato Si.

God, he added, “will hold us accountable for the slaves of our day, and we must do everything to make sure that these situations do not happen again.”

Francis noted that some people object to the social doctrine of the Church, saying it reduces business to mere charity organizations or “philanthropic institutions.”

However, he stressed, the “only aspiration of the Church’s Social Doctrine is to guard over the integrity of people and social structures.”

“Every time that, for whatever reason, this integrity is threatened or reduced to a consumer good, the Church’s Social Doctrine will be a prophetic voice to protect us all from being lost in the seductive sea of ambition,” he said.

Pope Francis warned that each time a person’s integrity is violated, it begins a process of declination for society as a whole. Therefore, every sector of society is obliged look out for the good of everyone.

“We are all in the same boat. We all have to struggle to make sure that work is a humanizing moment which looks to the future,” he said, and asked those present what kind of world and what kind of Mexico they want to leave for their children.

“Do you want to leave them the memory of exploitation, of insufficient pay, of workplace harassment? Or do you want to leave them a culture which recalls dignified work, a proper roof, and land to be worked?”

He also asked whether they would leave behind air “tainted by corruption, violence, insecurity and suspicion, or, on the contrary, an air capable of generating alternatives, renewal and change?”

Francis acknowledged that the issues he raised are not easy to face, but said that leaving the future in the hands of corruption, brutality and inequity would be worse.

Even though it’s difficult to bring different sides together to negotiate, more harm is done by refusing to negotiate, the Pope said. He added that while getting along can be hard in an increasingly competitive world, it would be worse if society allows this competition to destroy people.

“Profit and capital are not a good over and above the human person; they are at the service of the common good,” he said. When the common good is used only to serve profit and capital, “the only thing gained is known as exclusion.”

Francis closed his speech by inviting the citizens of Mexico to build a country “that your children deserve; a Mexico where no one is first, second or fourth; a Mexico where each sees in the other the dignity of a child of God.”


As I am about to post, the Pope is about to start his final day in Mexico, traveling from Mexico City to Ciudad Juarez, just across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas. You will be able to watch it on EWTN, either on TV or online at ewtn.com.

In the following stories, you will find a look back at Pope Francis’ days in Mexico through the eyes of papal spokesman and head of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, a profile of the final papal stop, Ciudad Juarez, and a look at a group of 12 nuns, Las Siervas (The Servants) whose singing has become an Internet sensation. They will be singing in Ciudad Juarez.


(Vatican Radio) On the last day of his pastoral visit to Mexico, Pope Francis on Wednesday visits inmates at a prison in Ciudad Juarez on the U.S.-Mexico border. Before heading back to Rome Wednesday evening, he will also meet people from the working world and celebrate Mass in the city located just across the border from El Paso, Texas. On Tuesday, the Holy Father visited Morelia in central Mexico where he celebrated Mass with religious, consecrated people and seminarians and later was greeted by tens of thousands of young people at the local stadium.

Holy See Press Office Director, Fr. Federico Lombardi says the Pope has come to Mexico as “a messenger of mercy and of peace.” Even through his gestures and small actions, the Pope “was teaching love and demonstrating love and mercy of God… not only through his words,” adds Fr. Lombardi. In this way, he said, the Pope “has contributed very much to the harmony and reconciliation of a society that has dramatic tensions and problems with violence and internal conflicts and disparities of situations in the society.”

In an interview with Vatican Radio’s Veronica Scarisbrick, Fr. Lombardi notes that Pope Francis has made his mark in Mexico “in a very pastoral way, not as a politician, not as a person who comes with easy solutions for problems that are so incredibly difficult. But he demonstrates understanding for the situation, for the people and the temptations that they have: [the] discouragement [they feel] in this situation. And he encourages them, and he witnesses the love of God, and invites [them] to the profound devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe that is in the heart of Mexicans.”

Pope challenges Mexicans to put love, hope into practice

Pope Francis has also been challenging Mexicans to embrace this witness concretely, in their own lives, in their families and in society, Fr. Lombardi affirms. “I think he leaves to the Mexican people a treasure of hope – a horizon of hope for the future.” It was this message that the Pope stressed in a particular way to the young people he encountered, “because they are the majority of the society and the future is concretely in their hands even if they have difficulties [in finding] their way in this society.”

Fr. Lombardi observes that one of the things that has impressed Pope Francis the most on this trip is “the love of the people [on the streets] for him.” For the Pope, theirs is a gratuitous, freely-given love: “they come to demonstrate spontaneously in the street to demonstrate sincerely that they love the Pope, the Church. That they desire to be a community which hopes [for] a better situation.” Pope Francis, Fr. Lombardi adds, is “grateful for the witness of love that he has received and he has tried to give his contribution to [the Mexican people] to overcome this historical, difficult moment.”

Moving moments

Fr. Lombardi admits that he personally found two moments of the trip particularly moving: “the silent dialogue between the Pope and the Virgin of Guadalupe” in the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe at the end of Saturday’s Mass in Mexico City. And the moment during Monday’s meeting with families in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, when a severely disabled child in a wheelchair was brought towards the Pope. The episode, Fr. Lombardi remarks, reminded him of the Gospel story “in which the people bring the paralytic to Jesus: the Pope has seen this and then came down from the podium to encounter this child and to bless him…. It was a very particular moment: the witness of faith of the people bringing this sick young man to the Pope and the love of the Pope” who interrupted the testimonials of families “to go down where he sees this desire of blessing for a person that was in very, very particularly grave sickness.”


(Vatican Radio) This evening Pope Francis will celebrate Holy Mass in Ciudad Juarez at the end of his six-day stay in Mexico. But in the morning his first appointment will be at the Cereso 3 State prison in the city that used to be a hotspot of gang power.

Our correspondent in Mexico Veronica Scarisbrick tells us more.
For many years now Ciudad Juarez has represented first for Mexicans and then for Central Americans a personal dream, that of crossing the border to reach ‘El Norte’, the United States.

This search for a better future for most has often become a dashed dream. For those who make it here crossing the border is often impossible, for those without papers the risk of falling into the hands of traffickers is even greater.

Just imagine for a moment the state of mind of migrant minors who reach this desolate place, dubbed until not so long ago the murder capital of the world. A place notorious for the unsolved murders of hundreds of women and rife with all kinds of violence, much of it gang and drug based.

Located in the middle of the Chihuahuan Desert, it’s Mexico alright but without a crumb of glamour. There’s a river that provides a natural physical divide, and a looming chain link fence divide.

And it’s by this chain link fence that Pope Francis will celebrate Holy Mass on the evening of Wednesday 17th of February at the end of his six day stay in Mexico. Right on the border with the United States, so near that it’s within earshot of the El Paso inhabitants on the other side of the fence.


Pope Francis flies in to Ciudad Juarez in the morning and his first appointment is at the Cereso 3 State prison that used to be a hotspot of gang power.

Officials with the diocese say 800 inmates have already been chosen for that special meeting with Pope Francis, half of them women. On this occasion he will also meet with family members.

Ciudad Juarez is not a place for the faint hearted but it seems that when Pope Francis arrives here the worst of the bloodshed of this once hell hole has been left behind.

Certainly during this Jubilee Year of Mercy it will give Pope Francis a chance to console prisoners, workers, and the inhabitants of this long suffering Mexican City.

Inhabitants many of whom have been orphaned, widowed or simply traumatized by the violence they’ve witnessed.


Here’s a great story from Mexico City by CNN: A group of pop-singing nuns will perform before Pope Francis on Wednesday, thanks in part to a viral video that made them an overnight sensation. “Siervas” or “The Servants,” took the Internet by storm late last year after the band posted a music video to YouTube.


The clip, “Confía en Dios” or “Trust in God,” has been viewed more than 270,000 times. It shows the 12 sisters playing classical and rock instruments, and singing their catchy tune in their religious robes on top of a rooftop helipad.

“We posted our video online only a few months ago and couldn’t believe how popular it became,” Sister Monica, one of the group’s leaders told CNN. “A Mexican priest watched it and messaged us saying, ‘Come to Mexico,’ so we did.”

The Peru-based nuns are scheduled to perform in the city of Juarez, the final stop in the Vatican leader’s Mexican tour. They will be the warm-up act before his last Mass of the trip.

The group’s unique blend of rock instruments and religious hymns has made them popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, with nearly 30,000 followers on Facebook.

For Sister Cindy, the band’s standup bass player, the trip is a dream come true. “I went to the Brazil [in 2013] during the Pope’s trip there and got to see him in the popemobile, but never dreamed I would actually get to play for him,” she said. “Words cannot begin to express how overwhelmed I am.”

In addition to playing in Juarez, Siervas will have gigs in Mexico City, Chihuahua and San Juan del Rio.

The sisters are hoping their online success will help transmit their faith to a wider audience.

“The Lord is always present in our lives, even in the tough times,” said Sister Andrea, who is originally from Argentina. “I think our video brings a very universal message that people connect to.”

The international ensemble, which has been together for a little over a year, includes members from China, Japan, Ecuador and Chile, among others.

Despite the group’s diversity, they all speak the same language when singing in unison and expressing their “Trust in God.”

“Our faith speaks volumes,” Sister Cindy said. “That is what we are hoping to transmit to Pope Francis and to young people around the world.”


Yesterday, in my reflections on Justice Antonin Scalia and my comments on the Supreme Court, I wrote: Because SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) now has 8 members and they are equally divided into liberal (4) and conservative camps (4) the extremely important decisions facing the justices this year on religious freedom could end up in a tie, a “hung jury,” so to speak.

To clarify: Under Supreme Court practice, a 4-4 tie means the ruling from the lower-instance court stands.

Speaking of law, the Church’s Code of Canon Law is quite clear about the sins whose pardon is “reserved” to the Holy See. I received an email from a reader who asked what the “reserved sins” were, other than abortion, that incurred excommunication and could only be absolved by the Holy See. Reserved sins came up last week, as you may remember, when Pope Francis on Ash Wednesday gave the mandate to over 1100 Missionaries of Mercy, that is, confessors to whom the special privilege was given of absolving sins normally reserved to the Holy See through the Apostolic Penitentiary.

The Apostolic Penitentiary is one of three tribunals of the Roman Curia. It is considered a tribunal of mercy, as it is responsible for issues relating to the forgiveness of sins, such as the absolution of excommunications latæ sententiæ reserved to the Holy See. See my third story today about this issue.


(Vatican Radio)  On Monday evening Pope Francis flew to the city of Tuxtla Gutiérrez, the capital of the Mexican southeast state of Chiapas, where he met with families in the city’s stadium.

What a great photo!


Before addressing the gathering, he listened to testimonies by people from different family situations who included a civilly-married couple of divorced parents who are actively involved with charitable work, a disabled adolescent who found joy in being accepted by the church and is now active in the evangelization of other youth, a single mother who was rejected by society but welcomed with love in the Church, and a catholic family of the diocese of Tapachula.

In his prepared remarks, Pope Francis noted that the testimonies he had heard represented the joys, hopes, and determination by which many families confront sadness, disillusion and failings. He observed that “living in a family is not always easy, and can often be painful and stressful”. He added that he would prefer a wounded family that makes daily efforts to put love into play to a society that is afraid of love.

Here’s a Rome Reports video on that meeting: https://youtu.be/Jhg_-FT-F58

In his third papal tweet of February 15, Pope Francis wrote: I prefer a family with a tired face from sacrifices made rather than a pretty one which is unfamiliar with tenderness and compassion.


Veronica Scarisbrick, my colleague on my weekly Vatican Radio program, “Joan Knows,” has been in Mexico to report on the Holy Father’s apostolic journey and she offers us this report about the Mexican state that Framcis will visit today, Michoacán.

(Vatican Radio)  Pope Francis on Tuesday begins the 4th day of his Apostolic Journey to Mexico with a trip to one of the country’s most drug-ridden states. Veronica Scarisbrick is with the Holy Father and sent us this report, entitled “Horror and Hope in Michoacán”.

Pope Francis on Tuesday travels to Morelia, capital of Michoacán, the Mexican state most identified with the drug trade. A place where there are performances of stupefying violence. Although I’ve been told there are worse places still in terms of the drug scene across Mexico.

Francis who comes to Mexico as ‘messenger of peace’ has called drugs ‘messengers of death’. The scenario related to drugs here is complex and multi- faceted. To set a strategy that might break the organized crime model is not an easy task, the law is one thing and implementation is another. Also government anti-corruption cartels are not sufficiently powerful to counter the power of narco billions.

It’s not that the problem has been ignored, the military and federal police have been called in on various occasions and in turn accused of the same crimes they were out to crush. And the result was so weak that the local communities decided to set up their own militias, the vigilantes’ with the result that you have lemon and avocado pickers turned gunmen.

There are contradictions as well. Traditional crime groups are often deeply tied to religion.  Furthermore they offer benefits people find hard to refuse and are often obliged to accept.

Among the consequences of this situation are economic and social disintegration and a connection with the escalating number of ‘desaparecidos’ in the area.

Overall in Mexico there are more than 20.000 people who have disappeared in ten years. Although UN sources have stepped up that number to over 26.000.  But these numbers don’t relate exclusively to Michoacán.

But significantly it’s in the capital of Michoacán, Morelia that Pope Francis has chosen to meet with young people in an effort to bring a much needed message of hope.

He’ll be meeting with them in the afternoon at the stadium ‘José Maria Morelos y Pavòn’. It promises to be a moving moment, one they will treasure. Let’s recall how Pope Francis said in his first speech to the nation. ‘One of Mexico’s greatest treasures is that it has a youthful face”.

It’s in Morelia too that earlier in the day Pope Francis will go to the heart of this stunning colonial city, to the Cathedral in the characteristic pink stone of the area which dominates the city. There he will meet with fourteen deans of Mexican Universities and six leaders of other Christian religions.

But he will start the day by celebrating Holy Mass in the local stadium with priests, men and women religious, consecrated people and seminarians.

All in the presence of the man he created Cardinal a year ago,  the Archbishop of Morelia Alberto Suarez Inda.


The sins whose absolution, as I mentioned earlier, is reserved to the Holy See are those that incur automatic excommunication. The email author wanted to know what sins, other than abortion, incur automatic excommnication: I felt the following Q&A from Catholic Answers was complete and answered the question concisely.

Question: Having an abortion means automatic excommunication from the Church. Are there other sins that carry this penalty?

Answer:  Yes. In the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) eight other sins carry the penalty of automatic excommunication: apostasy, heresy, schism (CIC 1364:1), violating the sacred species (CIC 1367), physically attacking the pope (CIC 1370:1), sacramentally absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin (CIC 1378:1), consecrating a bishop without authorization (CIC 1382), and directly violating the seal of confession (1388:1).

Apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith. Heresy is the obstinate doubt or denial, after baptism, of a defined Catholic doctrine. Schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or the refusal to be in communion with members of the Church who are in communion with him (CIC 751).

Violation of the sacred species is the throwing away the consecrated species of Christ’s body or blood or the taking or retaining of them for a sacrilegious purpose (CIC 1367).

Physically attacking the pope is self-explanatory, as are absolving an accomplice in a sexual sin and consecrating a bishop without authorization from the Vatican.

A direct violation of the seal of confession is one in which both the penitent and the penitent’s sin can easily be determined by the confessor’s words or behavior. Again, the penalty of automatic excommunication does not apply if no one perceives the disclosure (CIC 1330).

Automatic excommunication for abortion (CIC 1398) applies not only to the woman who has the abortion, but to “all those who commit this crime with knowledge of the penalty attached, and [this] includes those accomplices without whose help the crime would not have been committed” (Evangelium Vitae 62).

No one is automatically excommunicated for any offense if, without any fault of his own, he was unaware that he was violating a law (CIC 1323:2) or that a penalty was attached to the law (CIC 1324:1:9). The same applies if one was a minor, had the imperfect use of reason, was forced through grave or relatively grave fear, was forced through serious inconvenience, or in certain other circumstances (CIC 1324). (Answered by: Catholic Answers Staff )



I ran into Justice Scalia once, almost literally.

On the Sunday following the 9-11 attacks, Santa Susanna, the church for American and English-speaking Catholics in Rome, celebrated Mass in memory of the victims of that tragic day. The church was packed and it was only afterwards, as we were filing out of the church, I was on the steps and almost bumped into one of the visitors – Justice Scalia. We spoke only briefly and I learned that he had been in Italy on vacation but was unable to return to the States because of the 5 days of travel bans, airport closings, etc. Many people wanted to talk to him and, even though a real conversation was not possible, he smiled graciously and shook a lot of hands. He was waiting to hear word on the possibility of travel resuming to the U.S. that very day, and so was anxious to return to his hotel.

(I hope you have been following the extraordinary papal trip to Mexico at ewtn.com, on TV, via Facebook and all social media. My only post today is this piece on Justice Scalia and religious freedom, although I’ve been preparing for my appearance this afternoon on “At Home with Jim and Joy” when I’ll bring you the words of Pope Francis and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill on marriage, the family and the sacredness of life.)


When I learned Saturday night of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, I was filled with shock and dismay, shock at what appears to have been a premature death, and dismay because the Supreme Court – and the American people by extension – had just lost a great voice for reason, a voice of moderation, a powerful voice for conservative values.

My very first thought, a nanosecond after reading the news headlines, was, “Oh my heavens, what will become of religious freedom in America – the main voice for supporting this Constitutional right was just silenced!”


I immediately thought of the Little Sisters of the Poor because this order of Catholic nuns and other non-profits have been forced to ask the Court for relief due to the government’s refusal to exempt them from a regulation (part of the so-called HHS Mandate and Obamacare) that makes them choose between their faith—which prohibits them from providing contraceptives—and continuing to pursue their religious mission of serving the elderly poor.

Because SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) now has 8 members and they are equally divided into liberal (4) and conservative camps (4) the extremely important decisions facing the justices this year on religious freedom could end up in a tie, a “hung jury,” so to speak.

(A little history: The Constitution itself does not mandate 9 members: Article III, Section 1 only says: “The judicial power of the United States, shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish. The judges, both of the supreme and inferior courts, shall hold their offices during good behaviour, and shall, at stated times, receive for their services, a compensation, which shall not be diminished during their continuance in office.”

(There haven’t always been 9 justices on the court. The U.S. Constitution, as we see, established the Supreme Court but left it to Congress to decide how many justices should make up the court. The Judiciary Act of 1789 set the number at 6: a chief justice and 5 associate justices. “The Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and such number of Associate Justices as may be fixed by Congress. The number of Associate Justices is currently fixed at 8 (28 U. S. C. §1).” In 1869, Congress raised the number of justices to 9, where it has stood ever since.)

One of the hot button cases before the Court is Zubik v Burwell (Zubik is Bishop Zubik of Pittsburgh): One website that studies SCOTUS wrote: “In Zubik, a host of religious organizations, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, have asked the court to block a requirement by the Obama administration that they sign a form asking for a religious exemption for providing mandatory contraception coverage in their insurance plans for employees that’s required by the Affordable Care Act. Virtually all of the lower courts have ruled against the nuns and the other organizations, declaring that signing a piece of paper isn’t much of a burden on religious liberty. So a tied Supreme Court vote is likely to result in a victory for the Obama administration. Nuns lose.”

And that is why I got the chills when I heard of Justice Scalia’s death.

EWTN is one of the dozens of organizations, institutions, universities and colleges who are suing, along with the Little Sisters of the Poor, for the right to exercise freedom of religion in the face of the HHS Mandate.

Pope Francis, by the way, is aware of their case. If you remember, he paid an impromptu visit on the Sisters in Washington, D.C. on September 23 during his U.S. trip.

On July 23, 2015 I posted a story from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, as it defends the Sisters and many others: The headline was LITTLE SISTERS OF THE POOR APPEAL TO SUPREME COURT, Forced to choose faith or massive fines, nuns seek relief.

On January 11, 2016, I posted another story from the Becket Fund:


WASHINGTON, D.C. (The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty) A diverse coalition of religious leaders representing Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Native American, Catholic, Protestant, and other faiths will be joined by over 200 Democratic and Republican Members of Congress in filing friend-of-the-court briefs at the United States Supreme Court today on behalf of the Little Sisters of the Poor (view full list).  The briefs are being filed in Zubik v. Burwell, in which the High Court will decide whether the Little Sisters of the Poor and other ministries can be forced to change their healthcare plans to offer drugs that violate their religious beliefs when those same drugs could be made available through the healthcare exchanges.

“It’s easy to support religious freedom for the majority,” said Dr. Ossama Bahloul, Imam of The Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. “But the test of America’s commitment to religious diversity and freedom comes when we show we’ll defend minorities and those with whom we do not fully agree.”

“We have great admiration for the Little Sisters who are standing up not just for themselves and the elderly poor they serve but for the rights of all people of faith, including Jews,” said Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin. “Their courage is an example to all of us.” Rabbi Rocklin is a member of the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America.

“We stand with the Little Sisters because America’s proudest moments have come when the many have joined to defend the rights of the few, and we know too well the real cost when our government ignores its promises and puts expediency above principle,” said Pastor Robert Soto of the Lipan Apache Tribe in Texas.

“We are overjoyed and deeply grateful for the diverse outpouring of support we have received from such a variety of people and groups,” said Sister Loraine Marie Maguire, Mother Provincial for the Little Sisters of the Poor. “We have been serving the elderly poor for over 175 years and are simply asking the government to allow us to continue our life’s work without being forced to choose between our faith and millions in government fines.”

I am emphasizing the Little Sisters of the Poor case because it is emblematic of what is happening in our country vis-à-vis freedom of religion, that is, attempts to abridge, change, or undermine what our original U.S. Constitution says about religious freedom:

FIRST AMENDMENT: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Justice Scalia’s was a voice that clearly, forcefully defended that right.

And now, we wait with bated breath.

President Obama has the right to nominate a new justice. However, President Obama undid DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, so there’s no reason to think he might name a justice who would protect religious freedom.




What I want to offer today is a look at Catholic-Orthodox relations as both sides struggle for full Christian unity. How did that disunity come about?  On what points is there agreement? Disagreement?

Oceans of ink have been used over the centuries to write about Catholic-Orthodox relations since the East-West (Constantinople-Rome) schism of 1054, so it is not my intention to give a full, historical review here. I do hope, however, to help you understand some of the issues involved in this split.

In two parts, I will offer Pope Francis’ words during his trip to Istanbul in late November 2014, Pope Benedict’s words during his 2006 visit to Istanbul, some background research I did for Benedict’s visit and excerpts from a lengthy interview I had in 2006 in Istanbul (Phanar) with Archbishop Demetrios, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, spiritual leader of some 1.5 million Greek Orthodox Christians, and exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

Excerpts from my interview with Archbishop Demetrios will appear here tomorrow (ecumenism in doses!).


Pope Francis travelled to Istanbul from November 28 to 30, 2014 principally to participate in celebrations marking the feast of St. Andrew, patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. The Holy See and the Patriarchate exchange regular annual visits and send delegations for the feast days of their respective patrons. The Vatican celebrates the June 29 feast of Sts.Peter and Paul, Apostles and the Orthodox patriarchate marks the November 30 feast of St. Andrew. Roman Catholics believe St. Peter was given the mandate by Christ to lead the church and was thus the first Pope. The Orthodox believe that mandate was given to Peter’s brother, Andrew.

St. George Church, where Patriarch Bartholomew I celebrated a Divine Liturgy in the presence of Pope Francis to mark the patronal feast day, is located in the Fanar neighborhood (also spelled Phanar, the more traditional spelling) of Istanbul. The name is the Turkish transliteration of the original Greek word meaning a lighting lantern, a streetlight, a lightpost with a lantern. The name is also linked to the classical phanárion and the modern fanári meaning “lantern.”

Rooms in Phanar residence of Ecumenical Patriarch

TURKEY-2006-BXVI 121

TURKEY-2006-BXVI 123

The Phanar neighborhood became home to many Greeks as well as to the Patriarchate of Constantinople after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, 400 years after the Great Schism. Today a complex known as Phanar houses the offices of the patriarchate and the residence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. Just as the term Vatican – Vatican City State – is used the describe the heart of the Catholic Church, the Holy See, Phanar is often shorthand for the Ecumenical Pariarchate.

TURKEY-2006-BXVI 119

Pope Francis, speaking Sunday, November 30 at the conclusion of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church of St. George in Istanbul, said, “the one thing that the Catholic Church desires and that I seek as Bishop of Rome…is communion with the Orthodox Churches.”

“By happy coincidence,” he said, “my visit falls a few days after the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Christian Unity.  This is a fundamental document which opened new avenues for encounter between Catholics and their brothers and sisters of other Churches and ecclesial communities.

“In particular,” explained the Holy Father, “in that Decree the Catholic Church acknowledges that the Orthodox Churches “possess true sacraments, above all – by apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, whereby they are still joined to us in closest intimacy” (15).  The Decree goes on to state that in order to guard faithfully the fullness of the Christian tradition and to bring to fulfilment the reconciliation of Eastern and Western Christians, it is of the greatest importance  to preserve and support the rich patrimony of the Eastern Churches.  This regards not only their liturgical and spiritual traditions, but also their canonical disciplines, sanctioned as they are by the Fathers and by Councils, which regulate the lives of these Churches (cf. 15-16).

Pope Francis said at that time he believes “that it is important to reaffirm respect for this principle as an essential condition, accepted by both, for the restoration of full communion, which does not signify the submission of one to the other, or assimilation.   Rather, it means welcoming all the gifts that God has given to each, thus demonstrating to the entire world the great mystery of salvation accomplished by Christ the Lord through the Holy Spirit.  I want to assure each one of you here that, to reach the desired goal of full unity, the Catholic Church does not intend to impose any conditions except that of the shared profession of faith.  Further, I would add that we are ready to seek together, in light of Scriptural teaching and the experience of the first millennium, the ways in which we can guarantee the needed unity of the Church in the present circumstances.  The one thing that the Catholic Church desires, and that I seek as Bishop of Rome, “the Church which presides in charity”, is communion with the Orthodox Churches.  Such communion will always be the fruit of that love which “has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (cf. Rom 5:5), a fraternal love which expresses the spiritual and transcendent bond which unites us as disciples of the Lord.”


Eight years earlier, Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I celebrated a Byzantine liturgy in the church of St. George in Istanbul on the November 30 feast of St. Andrew. In his talk that day, Pope Benedict said, “the divisions that exist among Christians are a scandal to the world and an obstacle to the proclamation of the Gospel.”

One of the principal reasons for the thousand-year old split between Catholics and Orthodox is the Petrine ministry – Petrine referring to St. Peter – and the Petrine ministry being the office of the Pope.

Benedict made reference to that as well in his talk. He said that Christ gave Peter and Andrew the task of being “fishers of men,” but entrusted that task to each in different ways. Peter, said the Pope, was called “the rock upon which the Church was to be built and entrusted him with the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.” Peter traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome “so that in that city he might exercise a universal responsibility.”

“The issue of the universal service of Peter and his Successors,” said Benedict XVI, “has unfortunately given rise to our differences of opinion, which we hope to overcome.”

During that trip Pope Benedict showed concern not only for Christian unity but for the legal and juridical status of all minority religions in Turkey, including the Orthodox. He reiterated that concern two months later when, on January 19, 2007 he welcomed Turkey’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Muammer Dogan Akdurm. The Pope called on Turkey to give the Catholic Church legal status as a recognized religious institution: “While enjoying the religious freedom guaranteed to all believers by the Turkish Constitution,” he said, “the Catholic Church wishes to benefit from a recognized juridical statute, and to see the start of official dialogue between the episcopal conference and the State authorities in order to resolve any problems that may arise and to maintain good relations between both sides. I do not doubt that the government will do everything in its power to progress in this direction.”

Some historical background on the East-West split:

What has come to be known as the East-West Schism occurred in 1054 when Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople, leader of the Eastern Christian Churches, and Pope Leo IX, leader of the Western Church, excommunicated each other. The mutual excommunications were lifted only in 1965 when Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras, following an historic encounter in Jerusalem a year earlier, presided over simultaneous ceremonies that revoked the excommunication decrees.

Differences between the two Churches had been growing for years on issues such as papal primacy, liturgical matters and conflicting claims of jurisdiction. The split almost a millennium ago occurred along doctrinal, theological, linguistic, political, and geographic lines and the two Churches have been seeking unity ever since.

The Petrine ministry – the primacy of the Pope – was specifically mentioned vis-a-vis the Orthodox Church in the document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled “Responses to Some Questions on Certain Aspects of the Doctrine of the Church,” dated June 29, 2007. Pope Francis quoted this document – specifically the fourth question – in his talk during the Divine Liturgy. (This 1,200-word document, excluding footnotes, with five questions and five answers is eminently readable: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html)


Within the Orthodox Church there are 15 separate churches that are autocephalous, autonomous and hierarchical, distinct in terms of administration and local culture, but for the most part in communion with one another (Russian Orthodox Church, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Georgian Orthodox Church, etc). Each of these churches has its own leader, called either a primate or a patriarch, such as the Patriarch of Moscow, the one that interests us now for the papal encounter with Patriarch Kirill.

While there are over one billion Catholics in the world, there are only about 300 million Orthodox The Moscow Patriarchate oversees just over half, that is, about 160 million people.

Notwithstanding the very warm and personal relations between Ecumenical Patriarchs such as Bartholomew I and recent Popes, relations between Moscow and the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, over the years have been fraught with difficulties, not the least of which is the patriarchate’s close ties with the Russian government. The Orthodox Church is viewed more than favorably by the government whereas Catholic priests are viewed suspiciously if they meet with Orthodox Christians, especially if such meetings seem like proseltyzing.

The Petrine ministry, as I said earlier, is another obstacle on the path to unity.

One of the greatest dreams of St. John Paul, the first Slavic Pope, was reconciliation with the Orthodox Church. Repeated attempts were made to set up meetings and establish a closer relationship but they were always ignored or rejected by Moscow.

I’d need to write almost the entire week to cover just the Moscow-Rome history but that is not my intention today.

If we look back at the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of communism, we realize that the stage was ripe for that to happen given the leaders at the time – Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachov.

Perhaps this now a moment in history when two other leaders, spiritual leaders – Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill – are also destined to make history. Actually, by the mere fact of meeting, they will make history.

Part II of my interview with Archbishop Demetrios will appear tomorrow in “Joan’s Rome.” This is the part where we talk specifically about the relations between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox. I will not present Part I of that conversation as it dealt specifically with problems the Orthodox encounter in Turkey (where the interview took place).